Thursday, January 26, 2017

Syrian conflict review - 1.26.17: Plan for the "safe zones"

M.N.: My respectful advice to the Russian leadership and the military: 
Do agree with this plan and cooperate with it fully. It makes perfect sense, first of all on the humanitarian grounds, and also as a starting point for the joint efforts instead of the potential confrontation. Protect these zones on the ground and from the air jointly. Organize the logistics together. The issue of the possible infiltration by the rebels is the secondary one, and can be managed at a later point, also jointly, when the situation with these zones clears and stabilizes. 
One of the negative alternatives to this proposed cooperation is the establishment of the de facto no-fly areas by the rebels equipped with the ground to air weapons, with all the inevitable losses. 

It has to be kept in mind that the the major burden of handling the Syrian refugees falls on the EU and the US, not on Russia, and it would be only fair to expect the certain cooperation from the Russian side. 

» Mike Nova's Shared NewsLinks: Trump Expected to Order Syrian 'Safe Zones' for Refugees
26/01/17 09:15 from 1. My News Blogs from mikenova (2 sites)
mikenova shared this story from Newsweek. President Donald Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and State Department to produce a plan in coming days for setting up “safe zones” for refugees in Syria and neighboring countr...

Syrian refugee children
Syrian children stand behind a fence at a refugee camp in the Kilis district of Gaziantep, Turkey, October 23. Turkey is hosting more than 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images 
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that any move to deny Syria and Russia access to all of Syria's airspace would require the United to “go to war against Syria and Russia.”
“That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Trump Expected to Order Syrian 'Safe Zones' for Refugees

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President Donald Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and State Department to produce a plan in coming days for setting up “safe zones” for refugees in Syria and neighboring countries, according to a document seen by Reuters, a move that could risk escalation of U.S. military involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The draft executive order awaiting Trump’s signature signaled the new administration was preparing a step that Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama long resisted, fearing the potential for being pulled deeper into the conflict and the threat of clashes between U.S. and Russian warplanes over Syria.
"The Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense, is directed within 90 days of the date of this order to produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement," the draft order said. 
Creation of safe zones, if Trump decides to do so, could ratchet up U.S. military involvement in Syria and mark a major departure from Obama’s approach. If Trump decided to enforce “no fly” restrictions over such areas, it would require increased U.S. or allied air power. It could also demand some type of ground forces to provide security.
Still, the document gave no details on what would constitute a safe zone, exactly where they might be set up and who would defend them. Jordan, Turkey and other neighboring countries already host millions of Syrian refugees.
U.S. military officials had long warned that creation of no-fly zones inside Syria would require a large number of additional resources beyond the fight against Islamic State and it would be difficult to ensure that jihadist insurgents did not infiltrate those areas.
Republican lawmakers have advocated the creation of such zones, especially to protect against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
During the presidential campaign, Trump called for no-fly zones to harbor refugees as an alternative to allowing them into the United States. Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to properly screen Syrian refugees entering the United States to guarantee they had no militant ties.
Trump’s call for a plan for safe zones is part of a larger document that includes a temporary ban on most refugees to the United States and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries, according to congressional aides and immigration experts briefed on the matter.
“All the questions of setting up a safe zone are still there,” a U.S. official said. “If you're going to declare a safe zone, there's a lot of other things" that would have to be analyzed and put in place before it becomes feasible.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that any move to deny Syria and Russia access to all of Syria's airspace would require the United to “go to war against Syria and Russia.”
“That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Kremlin: US plan for safe zones in Syria needs to be careful

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MOSCOW –  The Kremlin says a U.S. plan for safe zones in Syria should be thoroughly considered.
Asked to comment on a draft executive order that President Donald Trump is expected to sign this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, underlined the importance to "thoroughly calculate all possible consequences" of the measure. He noted Thursday that "it's important not to exacerbate the situation with refugees."
While suspending visas for Syrians and others, the order directs the Pentagon and the State Department to produce a plan for safe zones in Syria and the surrounding area within 90 days.
Safe zones, proposed by both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton during the campaign, were considered by the Obama administration years ago and ruled out, in part because of Russia's air campaign in Syria.

Trump says he will 'absolutely do safe zones' in Syria

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U.S. military officials had long warned that the creation of no-fly zones inside Syria would require a large number of additional resources beyond the fight against Islamic State and it would be difficult to ensure that jihadist insurgents did not infiltrate those areas amid the chaos of Syria's civil war.
Some Republican lawmakers have advocated the creation of such zones, especially to protect civilians fleeing the conflict against attacks by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
During and after the presidential campaign, Trump called for no-fly zones to harbor Syrian refugees as an alternative to allowing them into the United States. Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to properly screen Syrian immigrants entering the United States to ensure they had no militant ties.
Obama's aides have insisted the vetting was meticulous and none of the Syrian refugees allowed in have been implicated in any attacks.
On the campaign trail, Trump gave no details as to how he might go about creating such havens, except to say that he would ask Gulf states to help pay.
"All the questions of setting up a safe zone are still there," a U.S. official said. "If you're going to declare a safe zone, there's a lot of other things" that would have to be analyzed and put in place before it becomes feasible.
Among the biggest questions would be how to avoid confrontations with Russian forces in Syria helping keep Assad in power.
Under the broader executive order, which the draft document says is intended to "protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals," Trump would impose a 30-day suspension of the entry of immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The temporary halt is aimed at giving the homeland security secretary, the secretary of state and the director of national intelligence enough time to determine what information is needed from each country to ensure visas are not issued to individuals that pose a national security threat, according to the draft.
Countries that do not provide adequate information about their nationals will be required to do so within 60 days or risk being blocked from entering the United States. That would exclude diplomatic visas, NATO visas and visas for travel to the United Nations.
It would also suspend the overall U.S. refugee program for 120 days so the government can study the process and determine if additional checks are necessary, but that could be waived on a case-by-case basis. It would completely stop refugee processing of Syrians until "I have determined that sufficient changes have been made" to the refugee program to ensure "its alignment with national interest," the draft said.
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Kremlin Cautious On U.S. Plan For Syria 'Safe Zones'

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Russia has reacted cautiously to a U.S. plan for "safe zones" in Syria, saying that Washington did not consult with Moscow on the matter and that all possible consequences should be examined.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on January 25 he intended to set up such zones for refugees in Syria, a move related to his sweeping plans to limit immigration to the United States.
Reports say Trump is directing the Pentagon and State Department to produce a plan within three months, according to a draft executive order he is expected to sign in the coming days.
"No, our American partners did not consult with us," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 26. "It's a sovereign decision."
Peskov said it was necessary to "thoroughly calculate all possible consequences" and that "it's important that this [plan] does not exacerbate the situation with refugees."
Turkey and a Syrian Islamist group say they have always supported the idea of safe zones in Syria, but would need to review the U.S. plan before commenting.
"We support any plan to protect civilians, but we will have to know details of this plan," Yasser al-Youssef of the Nureddine al-Zinki faction told the dpa news agency.
Despite some skepticism, Youssef also said the proposal could "be a blow to the Russian-Iranian expansionist plan in Syria."
Moscow and Tehran back President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the six-year-old Syrian war, while Ankara supports the opposition.
"What's important is the results of this study and what kind of recommendation will come out," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu said.
"Turkey has from the start suggested this. Jarabulus is the best example," he said, referring to a Syrian border town taken in August by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels from Islamic State fighters.
Qatar, another backer of rebels fighting Assad’s government, welcomed Trump's comments.
The state news agency QNA quoted Foreign Ministry official Ahmad al-Rumaihi as emphasizing "the need to provide safe havens in Syria and to impose no-fly zones to ensure the safety of civilians."
In the Lebanese capital, Beirut, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said it was too early to comment on the U.S. plan for safe zones in Syria. The bloc "will consider plans when they come," she said.
In an interview with ABC News broadcast late on January 25, Trump said he would "absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people," stressing that he decided on the plan after watching the European Union struggle with a major refugee crisis spawned in large part by the Syrian civil war.
"I think that Europe has made a tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people to go into Germany and various other countries," Trump told ABC.
Trump indicated that he sees the establishment of safe zones in Syria as one way of stemming what he sees as a threat of terrorism from admitting refugees and other immigrants or visitors from Muslim countries into the United States.
U.S. media are reporting that an executive order on safe zones that Trump is readying will be issued in conjunction with separate orders halting all resettlement of refugees from Syria in the United States, and suspending U.S. visas for people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other select Muslim countries until an aggressive system of vetting is in place.
Reuters claims to have seen the draft executive order on safe zones.
It said the order requires the Pentagon and State Department to come up with a plan within 90 days "to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement."
Reuters and AP said the document gives no details on what would constitute a safe zone, exactly where they might be set up, and who would defend them.
Jordan, Turkey, and other neighboring countries already host millions of Syrian refugees.
While various U.S. politicians have raised the possibility of establishing safe zones in Syria, including Trump's Democratic opponent in the November presidential election, Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama resisted the proposal out of concern that it would pull the United States more deeply into the six-year-old civil war in Syria and possibly lead to clashes with Russian forces waging an air campaign there.
The clashes could occur if Trump chooses to enforce "no fly" restrictions over the safe zones he is planning.
Moreover, U.S. ground forces likely would also be needed to protect civilians in the zones, greatly increasing the cost of intervention both in terms of money spent and lives at risk.
U.S. military officials have long warned that the creation of no-fly or safe zones inside Syria would require far more resources than those already devoted to fighting against the Islamic State in Syria, and it would be difficult to ensure that militants do not infiltrate the zones amid the chaos of Syria's civil war.
While campaigning, Trump suggested that he would ask wealthy Persian Gulf states to help pay for such safe havens.
On Trump's broader anti-immigration plans, Reuters reported that Trump's draft executive order temporarily barring refugees from Syria and other countries unless they are persecuted religious minorities asserts that the measures are needed to "protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals."
AP reported that the draft order says its purpose is to make sure anyone allowed to enter the United States doesn't "bear hostile attitudes toward our country and its founding principles."
"We cannot, and should not, admit into our country those who do not support the U.S. Constitution or those who place violent religious edicts over American law," Trump states in the order, according to AP.
Human rights groups denounced Trump's anti-immigrant plans.
"The president needs to know he's an absolute fool for fostering this kind of hostility in his first few days. This will inflame violence against Americans around the world," said Seth Kaper-Dale, a pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey, which he said helped resettle 28 refugee and asylum-seeking families in the state last year.
"Never before in our country's history have we purposely, as a matter of policy, imposed a ban on immigrants or refugees on the basis of religion," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calling it "a disturbing confirmation of Islamophobia" that was evident throughout Trump's presidential campaign.
"Actions to build a wall around us, criminalize a religion, and to strike fear in the heart of immigrants make Trump's America look more like a police state than the republic we truly are," said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
With reporting by ABC, Reuters, and AP

Trump Blocks Syrian Refugees and Orders Mexican Border Wall to Be Built

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It would also suspend any immigration for at least 30 days from a number of predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — while the government toughened its already stringent screening procedures to weed out potential terrorists.
White House officials declined to comment on the coming plan, but in a wide-ranging interview that aired Wednesday on ABC, Mr. Trump acknowledged that it aimed to erect formidable barriers for those seeking refuge in the United States.
“It’s going to be very hard to come in,” Mr. Trump said. “Right now, it’s very easy to come in.”
An early draft of an executive order that President Donald J. Trump is expected to issue as early as Thursday outlines his plans to indefinitely block Syrian refugees from entering the United States and institute a temporary halt on all refugees from the rest of the world.
OPEN Document
He also said his administration would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria” to discourage refugees from seeking safety in other countries, and chided Europe and Germany in particular for accepting millions of immigrants. “It’s a disaster, what’s happening there,” Mr. Trump said.
Taken together, the moves would turn the full weight of the federal government to fortifying the United States border, rounding up some of the 11 million people who are in the country illegally and targeting refugees, who are often among the world’s most vulnerable people. It is an aggressive use of presidential power that follows through on the nationalistic vision Mr. Trump presented during his presidential campaign.
“A nation without borders is not a nation,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday at the Department of Homeland Security, where he signed the orders alongside the newly sworn-in secretary, John F. Kelly. “Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders.”
The plans are a sharp break with former President Barack Obama’s approach and what was once a bipartisan consensus to devise a path to citizenship for some of the nation’s illegal immigrants. Mr. Obama, however, angered many immigrant groups by deporting millions of unauthorized workers, largely during his first term.
But Mr. Trump, whose campaign rallies were filled with chants from his supporters of “build the wall,” has vowed to go much further. He has often described unauthorized immigrants as criminals who must be found and forcibly removed from the United States, as he did again on Wednesday.
“We are going to get the bad ones out — the criminals and the drug dealers and gangs and gang members,” Mr. Trump said. “The day is over when they can stay in our country and wreak havoc. We are going to get them out, and we are going to get them out fast.”
The president had invited the families of people killed by unauthorized immigrants to watch him sign the orders alongside Homeland Security employees, and he asked each of them to stand in turn, telling of the deaths of their relatives, which he said had inspired his policies.
“We hear you, we see you, and you will never, ever be ignored again,” Mr. Trump said, contending that they had been “victimized by open borders.”
The order would also indefinitely block all refugees from Syria.
OPEN Graphic
The immigration orders drew furious condemnation from civil rights and religious groups as well as immigrant advocacy organizations. The groups described them as meanspirited, counterproductive and costly and said the new policies would raise constitutional concerns while undermining the American tradition of welcoming people from around the world.
“They’re setting out to unleash this deportation force on steroids, and local police will be able to run wild, so we’re tremendously concerned about the impact that could have on immigrants and families across the country,” said Joanne Lin, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “After today’s announcement, the fear quotient is going to go up exponentially.”
Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund, an immigration advocacy group, said Mr. Trump was “wasting no time taking a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty.” She called the orders “a dramatic, radical and extreme assault on immigrants and the values of our country.”
The orders also rankled officials in countries around the world. President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, who had planned to travel to Washington next week to meet with Mr. Trump, let it be known that he was considering canceling his trip, senior Mexican officials said.
Mr. Trump has claimed that Mexico will ultimately pay for the wall, but officials there have repeatedly said they have no intention of doing so.
Conservative organizations in the United States and some Republican lawmakers praised Mr. Trump’s moves, saying they would usher in overdue enforcement of crucial homeland security laws that Mr. Obama had refused to carry out.
“This looks like a return to enforcing the immigration laws, which is something that President Obama strayed from and has not been prioritized in a very long time,” said Tommy Binion, the director of policy outreach at the conservative-aligned Heritage Foundation. “To have President Trump focus on the problems immigration is bringing us as a nation is a relief. Finally, we have a government that recognizes the tragedies that we’re facing.”
Mr. Trump will not be able to accomplish the goals laid out in the immigration orders by himself. Congress would have to appropriate new funding for the construction of a wall, which some have estimated could cost tens of billions of dollars. Nonetheless, Mr. Trump directed federal agencies to use existing funds as a start to the wall and formally called for the hiring of an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 immigration officers.
The order would threaten the nation’s roughly three dozen sanctuary cities — jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with federal authorities seeking to detain unauthorized immigrants — with losing federal grant money if they do not comply with such requests.
At the same time, Mr. Trump is reviving a program called Secure Communities, ended by the Obama administration, in which federal officials use digital fingerprints shared by local law enforcement departments to find and deport immigrants who commit crimes.
The provisions are chilling to many immigration advocates, who argued that they could sweep up unauthorized immigrants beyond the criminals Mr. Trump says he wants to target. Among those listed as priorities for removal are those who have “engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency,” which would essentially include any undocumented worker who has signed an employment agreement in the United States.
The order also includes a section that directs federal agencies to adjust their privacy policies to exclude unauthorized immigrants, in effect allowing the sharing of their personal identifying information, which could be used to track and apprehend them.
“With today’s sweeping and constitutionally suspect executive actions, the president is turning his back on both our history and our values as a proud nation of immigrants,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader. “Wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on a border wall Mexico will never pay for, and punishing cities that do not want their local police forces forced to serve as President Trump’s deportation dragnet, does nothing to fix our immigration system or keep Americans safe.”
The order on refugees is in line with a Muslim ban that Mr. Trump proposed during the campaign, though it does not single out any particular religion. It orders the secretary of state and the secretary of Homeland Security to prioritize those who are persecuted members of religious minorities, essentially ensuring that Christians living in predominantly Muslim countries would be at the top of the list.
“In order to protect Americans,” the order states, “we must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward our country and its founding principles.”
It says that for the time being, admitting anyone from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen is “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
Continue reading the main story
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Report: Israel okays historic plan to absorb child refugees from Syria war - Israel News

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syrian refugees
Syrian refugee children pose as they play near their families' residence at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 30, 2016.. (photo credit:REUTERS)
Israel has allegedly agreed, for the first time, to grant asylum to some 100 children orphaned by neighboring Syria's bloody civil war, Channel 10 News reported Wednesday night.
According to the report, Interior Minister Arye Deri recently approved the humanitarian plan under which Israel would absorb the child refugees from Syria.

The historic move has yet to materialize, but outlines of the plan are said to entail an initial three-month accommodation of the children in Israeli dormitories. In the following stage, the Syrian orphans will be integrated into Education Ministry institutions and also possibly taken in by foster and adoptive families. 
According to Channel 10, the Syrian children will be brought to Israel on temporary residency status. That status will allow them to receive Israeli identification cards, however it will not immediately qualify them for national passports. It was not initially clear if the Syrian children residing in Israel would be able to apply for travel documents en lieu of a passport. 
Under the purported initiative, the state plans to inform the United Nations that after four years of residency in the country, the children will become eligible for permanent residency status, authorizing their indefinite legal stay in Israel.  
In addition, the Israeli government is reportedly considering residency sponsorship parameters to allow the legal immigration of the orphaned children's immediate family members, if they are later found alive. 
After nearly six years of war, millions of Syrians have fled their homes. Hundreds of thousands have been killed.
(Under cover of the night, Syrians seek help from Israel)
According to the IDF, Israel has allowed more than 2600 Syrians in for medical care. Israel has, however, thus far refused to accept refugees from Syria, with which it is still technically at war.
After the brutal battles in Aleppo late last year, Israel began looking into taking in Syrian orphans from the devastated city, either for a short or lengthier period of time, an Israeli official said earlier this week. Yet, the source added that project is still far off if it does eventually happen. 

Reuters contributed to this report.
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Trump Expected to Order Syrian 'Safe Zones' for Refugees

Newsweek-14 hours ago
President Donald Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and State Department to produce a plan in coming days for setting up “safe zones” ...
Kremlin Cautious On US Plan For Syria 'Safe Zones'
In-Depth-RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty-1 hour ago


Plan for the "safe zones" 

Conflict Update

The Impossible Politics of Peace in Syria

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Given Russia’s determination to exit the Syrian conflict and Turkey's increasingly accommodative stance toward Damascus, some minor agreements could be reached, but the broader conflict will continue through 2017. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)


  • Because of the complexity of the Syrian conflict, there is little chance that peace talks in Kazakhstan will succeed.
  • Rebel groups will divide even more this year, making it difficult for them to find a unified stance on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.
  • The Syrian government is determined to keep pursuing a military solution to the conflict.
  • Meanwhile, the Islamic State, despite its weaknesses, will remain a potent threat, particularly in central and eastern Syria.


Syrian peace talks resumed Jan. 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan, though it appears that the Russian and Turkish negotiators are more eager for a settlement than the Syrian ones — almost guaranteeing that the talks will not succeed. The rebellion is increasingly divided, and many important rebel factions are not represented at all in Astana. Meanwhile, the emboldened Syrian government is fixated on ending the conflict militarily, a position that Iran supports. And to further complicate matters, the Islamic State is still a considerable force to contend with on the ground, though it does not directly factor into the peace talks. 

The Rebels

2016 was a bad year for the rebel cause in Syria. Not only did the critical city of Aleppo fall, but the rebels also lost a number of important areas around the capital city of Damascus, including Daraya. Now they are facing declining foreign support at a crucial time, with infighting reaching critical levels.
Adding insult to injury, the anticipated upsurge in U.S. support, known as Plan B, did not materialize. Furthermore, the new U.S. administration is calling for greater cooperation with Russia on Syria. This means that the existing CIA support program could be reduced or ended altogether. Even Turkey, a staunch supporter of the rebel cause, has shifted its goals with Operation Euphrates Shield. Though Ankara continues to supply the rebels with weapons and equipment, it has pressured many groups away from fighting Syrian loyalists and toward Turkey's main goal of containing Kurdish expansionism by seizing Islamic State positions in northern Aleppo.
Instead of unifying the rebels behind a common cause, the defeat in Aleppo appears to have heightened infighting. Three variables are driving the trend: personality differences, disputes over foreign sponsorship and accelerated U.S. airstrikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The first variable has worsened as loyalist forces drive rebel groups into Idlib province. As the rebel stronghold becomes overcrowded, increasingly volatile disagreements are breaking out over matters of governance and control. As much as the rebels are being concentrated, differences over the question of foreign sponsorship are pulling them apart. Some groups, particularly those with the closest ties to Turkey, have come under increasing criticism from other, more extreme groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham over their commitments to Operation Euphrates Shield. For instance, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other like-minded groups claim that rebel contributions to Turkey's operations in northern Aleppo province undermined the battle for Aleppo city. Finally, the accelerated pace of U.S. strikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has killed hundreds of fighters over the past few months, angering the organization and its allies. The strikes have lowered the group's tolerance toward any rebel groups with U.S. ties, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has launched a number of raids and arrests against U.S.-backed groups.
The most important fissure on the rebel landscape is between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, two of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria. Last week, the conflict between the two turned into an outright battle, leading members of each group to start defecting to the other. These divisions are the greatest impediment to success in Astana. Fewer rebel groups have agreed to attend these talks than attended the last, and those that have elected to participate are less able to voice a unified position.

The Loyalists

Building on their 2016 success, loyalist forces are eager to continue pursuing their military campaign to wrest territory back from the rebels and the Islamic State. This course of action, however, is not completely straightforward. For instance, loyalist success on the battlefield is predicated on continued foreign support, particularly from Iran and Russia. Though Iran remains an eager ally of the Syrian government, along with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Russia's continued support is less certain. Unlike Tehran, Moscow is far less enthusiastic about pursuing a long-term and costly military effort in hopes of retaking all of Syria and is increasingly looking for a negotiated end to the conflict beneficial to its interests.
Unwilling to break with Russia, the Syrian government has agreed to participate in the Astana talks. It is clear, however, that Damascus has no intention of giving up its ambitious military goals in Syria. It has already been portraying the talks as a means by which to disarm the rebels. In the meantime, it has continued to launch offensives at rebel areas that it claims are excluded from the cease-fire because of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham's presence there.
In fact, in the short term, the cease-fire and the Astana negotiations could benefit Damascus. Not only would the talks further encourage rebel distrust and infighting, but they could also provide an opportunity for the loyalists to turn their attention toward the growing threat from the Islamic State in the east, where the extremist group has increasingly focused its effort in Homs and Deir el-Zour provinces. In the long term, however, the Syrian government has no intention of making significant concessions to the rebels and intends to build on its current battlefield advantage as long as its foreign support, particularly Iranian, remains strong.

The Islamic State

Going into 2017, the Islamic State finds itself under tremendous pressure in both Syria and Iraq. Although the group inflicted heavy casualties on Iraqi forces engaged in the battle to retake Mosul, Baghdad has nevertheless made steady progress, finally securing the east bank of the city. Pockets of Islamic State resistance in Mosul will continue, but the city is almost certain to be captured by the Iraqi government this year.
In northern Syria, the Islamic State faces offensives on either side of the Euphrates River. Turkish-backed rebel forces have driven Islamic State fighters from most of northern Aleppo province over the past few months and are now attempting to capture the city of al-Bab, despite a fierce Islamic State defense. On the east bank of the river, the Syrian Democratic Forces are steadily advancing on Raqqa and have already reached the Tabqa Dam west of the city. Both in al-Bab and around Raqqa, Islamic State resistance is greatly undermined by persistent coalition and Turkish airstrikes that make copious use of deadly precision-guided munitions.
Despite the multiple offensives against it, the Islamic State is unwilling to maintain a purely defensive stance. Defensive battles cannot provide the extremist group with the stunning propaganda victories it relies on to bolster its image, enhance recruitment, and capture valuable heavy weaponry and equipment (of which it has no supply source except battlefield seizures). To that end, the Islamic State has and will continue to shift the focus of its offensive operations toward Syrian loyalist regions, one of the last areas where it can secure operational success.
The Islamic State has a significantly better chance of prevailing against the poorly led and overstretched loyalist forces and can also capture significant quantities of weaponry from the well-equipped Syrian army. Attacking loyalist positions in central and eastern Syria also makes geographical sense, since it progresses the group's goal of clearing a space in eastern Syria, a region that would be difficult for the Turkish-backed rebels or the Syrian Democratic Forces to penetrate.
The Islamic State launched a significant offensive Jan. 14 aimed at seizing remaining Syrian loyalist positions in and around the city of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria. The offensive has already made significant progress. By seizing a key supply road and dividing loyalist positions, the Islamic State was able to isolate the region's principal air base from the rest of the Syrian army pocket. The Islamic State's advances make any aerial resupply effort — already precarious and limited — far more difficult. By successfully seizing a number of elevated positions overlooking the remaining loyalist positions, they now literally hold the high ground. The collapse of the loyalist pocket would be a significant blow to the Syrian government, dealing a particularly bad hit to the "Army in all corners" strategy and undermining Syrian President Bashar al Assad's ambition of taking back all of Syria.
A status check of the Syrian conflict highlights the significant impediments to any negotiated solution that might be mooted at Astana. The rebels are as fractious as ever, the loyalists are keen on pursuing their military campaign, and the Islamic State is committed to enhancing its offensive operations in central and eastern Syria. Given Russia's determination to exit the conflict and Turkey's increasingly accommodative stance toward al Assad, some minor agreements are within reach, but the Syrian conflict will not end in 2017.
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Trump’s “Syria “Minus Iran” Overture to Putin and Assad May Restore Washington-Damascus Relations

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Not for at least three quarters of a century have the American people elected a president who so openly disparages, discards and seemingly abhors the principles, standards, policies, ideas, and institutions at the center of post-WW II US foreign policy. Trump seems to dismiss human rights even as a foreign policy principle, much less a standard, while focusing rather on deal-making, diplomatic and economic, and championing the fight against Islamic terrorism.
No one knows how the foreign policy of the Trump administration will take shape. Or how his priorities may twist and turn as he encounters the assured torrent of events and mayhem from the looming plethora of crises that will wreak havoc. What is known is that the Mideast expects big changes under Trump. They may well happen.
President Trump is reported, by two US Senate Foreign Relations staffers among others, to be considering a broad new U.S. partnership with Russia, starting with Syria. Trump allies have also hinted at possible White House acceptance of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would amount to a dramatic reversal from years of the Obama administration calls for Assad’s ouster.
Trump’s cozying up to Putin is being reciprocated via an emerging Russian “Trumpomania” and love fest directed toward the American public, since the elections, which in Russia were greeted by the issuance of commemorative coins and Trump Matryoshka dolls. An all-night party in Moscow was endorsed by the Kremlin to celebrate Trump taking over the White House. The festivities were attended by thousands and even televised live on Tsargrad TV, a pro-Putin Russian Orthodox TV channel. And some Moscow shops have offered 10% discounts to “American guests.” Why such new-found good will?
Trump has not only labeled NATO obsolete, which coming from the president of the country that created NATO doubtless were music to Putin’s ears. He has also signaled that he will lift US sanctions imposed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea if Russia cooperates on a nuclear disarmament deal. Putin will presumably keep his cards to his chest while he studies this offer, but following more than a decade of frustration, Putin appears to be seeking the role of senior partner with Trump.
With or without the leverage of “golden shower’ videos, Putin is in a strong position to defend Trump’s weak reputation and widely questioned legitimacy while serving subtly as Trump’s mediator, advocate and protector, thus shoring up Trump’s presidency globally—if not among 1..5 million-plus US citizens who, the day after his inauguration, took to the streets across America in protest Trump’s announced agenda and even his election.
As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has frequently reminded John Kerry (who reportedly agreed with him) and before him Hillary Clinton (who reportedly did not), Moscow has some legitimate grievances of its own. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, US presidents and Congress have broken several agreements with Russia. Clinton enlarged NATO by adding former Soviet republics, which violated a U.S. commitment not to do so. The Bush administration pledged that if the Soviets pulled nearly 400,000 military forces out of East Germany, the United States would not “leapfrog” over East Germany to assert itself in Eastern Europe. But it did so by expanding NATO to include the three former soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Bush’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which served as the cornerstone of strategic deterrence and the arms control relationship between Russia and the United States, was another example of the United States taking advantage of Russia’s geostrategic weakness, thus angering Moscow and many Russian citizens to this day.
Trump has also been signaling support to Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, by claiming in the media that, while Assad may not be America’s first choice to lead Syria, Syria’s leadership is for the Syrian people to decide and that the rebels fighting to topple Assad “could be worse” than Assad. Trump regularly insists that the U.S. has no idea who its allies in Syria are, implying that Assad might turn out to be one. For his part, Bashar Assad recently suggested that the U.S. and Syria could be “natural allies.”
Admittedly such a shift would have consequences, especially among America’s Sunni allies in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region if they view the Trump administration’s as strengthening the hand of Assad’s second main partner, Shiite Iran. Among many other sources of tension, it was Iran who blocked them from a role in the peace talks organized by Turkey and Russia that are currently getting underway in Ashtana, Kazakhstan.
Assad, who highly praises Putin’s help since Russia’s major 2015 involvement in the war, reiterated this week his hope that Trump will become a partner in this alliance going forward. As the Syrian president said on Trump’s inauguration day: “We hope that they [the Trump administration] are genuinely forging a real and realistic alliance to fight the terrorists in the region, and that of course will include Syria first of all.” Turkey appears on board with officials now saying there can be no settlement without President Assad. If Assad now seriously takes on the Islamic State in Northwestern Syria one could imagine that Trump might accept a tacit if informal partnership.
Trump’s offer to Moscow and Damascus, being pushed by the Israel lobby in Washington, has a price tag. The Trump team wants Iran out of the six countries it is currently accused of occupying and insists on dismantling the Shia militia crescent that Iran has methodically put in place over the past several years, which funnels weapons and explosive devices as well as cash and militia from Iraq. These include Yemen’s party Ansar Allah (made up of Houthis loyal to Iran); the Afghanistan-based Fatemyoun Division of the IRGC-Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; Pakistan’s Shi’ite Zaynabyoun Brigade; Lebanon’s Hezbollah; and others. The Shia militia “highway” runs from Iran and Iraq into and across Syria, north of Aleppo, westward to the Mediterranean and turns south into Lebanon and to the Naquora-Maron el Ras border with Palestine/Israel.
The Syrian opposition delegation to the Astana talks, which includes 12 groups, claims that Moscow is serious about moving to a neutral posture during the talks but that Putin is being pressured by Iran. Whatever the results of the peace talks, they are already revealing growing tensions between Tehran and Moscow over the future of Syria. One opposition claimed deep split between Tehran and Moscow is over Putin’s insistence that Hezbollah should be forced to leave Syria. But Hezbollah withdrawing from Syria a redline for Tehran and it’s unlikely they would accept that Hezbollah leave Syria or any of the countries its fighters have been sent to by Tehran.
The US Congress and the six GCC countries also want the end to Iran’s reported ethnic cleansing and population transfers in Syria and implementation of the Four Towns Agreement, which called for a humanitarian lifting of the siege around four towns and which they claim Iran’s militia have not honored as its continues to besiege Madaya and sixteen other towns. The US Congress claims that all these Iranian actions are designed to increase Shia domination of strategic Sunni areas of Syria, including their oil reserves, and eviscerate Syria’s secular governmental system and its historical tolerance for all religions and ethnicities.
Trump is about to be heavily lobbied by Israel and Congress to accept this view and act accordingly. Israeli officials claim that Obama and his team adopted a policy of slowly bleeding resources from Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, while arming Syrian rebels just enough to prevent their defeat yet precluding their victory unless those factions who would assume power were properly vetted. A fight of attrition in Syria, according to this rationale, would not only weaken the Syrian army so that it is no longer a threat to Israel, either directly or indirectly, but also increase what they believe is growing regional opposition to Iran’s regime, especially by Iran’s restive civilian population, thus weakening the Islamic regime. Many in Tel Aviv and Washington are arguing that prolonged economic sanctions against Iran will likely lead to the regime’s collapse, or at least weaken it to the point that it is no longer a threat and can be forced to accept international legal norms. These views have also been voiced by Trump’s choice for the United States Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who told Congressmen on the sidelines of his Confirmation hearing that the simplest way to destroy Hezbollah is to stop the Iranian arms shipments traversing Syria. Israel is also seeking permission from the Trump White House for a green light to destroy Hezbollah bases in Lebanon and, if necessary, to neuter Iran’s air force and armed forces. To some, Trump appears to be listening.
President Putin is reportedly interested in working with Trump to end the war in Syria, as is the Ankara Government (inspired partly by revanchist interests in Ottoman imperial territory), the eleven Arab states in the eastern Middle East, NATO, and the EU among others. All have expressed varying degrees of frustration with what they viewed as Obama’s moralizing rhetoric, confused signals and unfulfilled red lines, and favor a Trump pivot to emphasize counterterrorism and security.
Part of the reason Moscow wants the Syrian conflict to end is that it is increasingly concerned about the financial and military labor costs of its involvement in Syria. Some sources claim that Putin’s government realizes that, however much Iran seeks a military solution in Syria, it will not happen no matter how many bombs are dropped. Syria is being called by some Russian analysts “Iran’s Afghanistan” and “Iran’s Vietnam.” Russian military officials have reportedly shown some interest in Trump tweets in conversation with various regional diplomats and with Former US Secretary of State John Kerry in discussions about a strong US preference for a “Middle East Minus Iran” to achieve a regional settlement.
Could Putin and Trump convince Assad to end Iran’s funneling arms to Hezbollah?
These interests and incentives raise several pressing questions. To profit from Trump’s offer of closer collaboration, would Moscow and Damascus cooperate in expelling Iran from Syria in order to thwart what they consider Iran’s deeply entrenched hegemonic colonization efforts across the Middle East? Could they succeed in this effort, and in cutting Iran out of a final peace settlement, given vows by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy, Naim Qasim, and by Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei and sundry Iranian officials that they will not leave Syria? Certainly Iran has no interest in doing so, or in dismantling its regional networks while facing a new alliance among hostile actors. As of last month, the Iranian regime has also pledged that Iran will not leave Iraq, while few in Washington, Tel Aviv or the region as a whole believe Iran will ever leave Lebanon, or at least not voluntarily.
The possibilities of an Iranian withdrawal from Syria would be increased, however, if the Assad regime agreed to shed its Iranian ally and other Shia militia allies in exchange for reduced pressures from Washington and even a new pragmatic arrangement with Israel (on the model, perhaps, of Jordan). However risky, this move could indeed salvage the Assad regime and Syrian unity if a Syrian alliance could manifest to Trump as a tool of US foreign policy. Destabilizing Iran’s legitimacy as a regional hegemon, through the aforementioned war of attrition as well as propaganda, could be part of this maneuver. Hence Israel’s right wingers hope that Donald Trump can help get this difficult job done. On this basis, Bibi Netanyahu this week assured the Iranian people that Israel is their friend who commiserates with them for still being shackled by a brutal dictatorship.
Russia too, despite its tactical alliance with Iran in Syria, has an interest in expelling Iran from Syria. Syria’s importance to Russia’s interest in regaining its Cold War position as a major player in the Middle East, partly by expanding its Mediterranean base near Tartus and elsewhere, have been widely reported. But Russia’s hopes for increased power in Syria face problems with Iran. Over the past year, since Putin sent his air force and weapons to Syria, Russian-Iranian relations and Syria-Iranian relations have not always been smooth. Concerns remain about Iran’s “colonization of Syria” and about who makes the battlefield decisions about sending various forces to the front lines, where casualties will be high. Such tensions are inflamed by local Syrian grumblings about “Persian/Shia arrogance” toward Syria’s mainly Sunni Arab army. Some Iranian clerics and officials opening boast that Al Quds [Iranian] Force Commander Qasim Soleimani is effectively Syria’s military commander, while deriding the Syrian army, an attitude both irritating and alarming to Syria’s military and to the Syrian regime itself.
In any case, the Syrian regime remains much closer to its former Cold War ally than to Iran and has encouraged a close relationship: economic, political and military. Last August, Russian lawmakers ratified a deal with Syria allowing Russia to keep its forces at the Hmeimim air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, Assad’s Alawite ethnic heartland, for as long as it wants. Under another agreement signed in Damascus this past week, Syria has offered Russia free use of the Soviet-era facility in Tartus for 49 years, automatically extendable for further 25-year periods. The Tartus facility is the only such outpost Russia has outside the former Soviet Union and has symbolic as well as strategic importance: in the immediate setting, it has been used to back Russia’s air campaign against rebel and ISIS forces.
Iran wants similar deals in Syria. Yet neither Moscow nor Damascus has agreed, partly because Iran has stated its intentions to create in Syria, Iraq and Yemen what it has imposed on Lebanon—which its Sunni and Christian critics claim has essentially destroyed the sovereignty of all four. The Assad regime knows well that no return to “One Syria” is possible if Iran does not withdraw and remove its armed forces, security agencies and growing political structures.
United States officials have expressed similar negative views, following a posture of antipathy and aggression toward Iran most recently dramatized in the nuclear energy controversy and flagged by demonizing rhetoric by US Congress people as well as Israeli officials. According to US Congressional sources and the Israeli US lobby’s pitch man Dennis Ross, “Israel’s best friend” Trump can resolve the Syrian crisis but not with Iran involved. Ross and his ilk claim Iran is a much bigger problem for Syria and the region than ISIS, which many in Congress, the Pentagon and the CIA insist can and will be contained. Others argue that, in any event, Iran was one of the several “Mothers of ISIS,” its being (they argue) partly Iran’s creation, and claiming that Iran continues to do financial and political business with ISIS even though the Caliphate is now targeting Shias above all.
We may soon have answers to how Trump’s reported “Syria without Iran” initiative fares in the swirling maelstrom of the proxy wars which continue in this ancient land.