‘Big price to pay’: Inside Trump’s decision to bomb Syria -Washington Post

Standard

“The absence of a clear strategy in Syria complicated the discussions. Trump had campaigned as a noninterventionist and vowed to withdraw from Middle East entanglements that he decried as costing American lives and treasure.

And yet to Trump’s national security team, action of some kind seemed to be a requirement, as officials said they listened to the president deride his predecessor, Barack Obama, for sometimes discussing possible military action and then not delivering it. At a White House dinner last Tuesday, Trump opined that the problems in Syria were caused “because Obama did not enforce his red lines,” according to one attendee, Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor.”

“Military officials said Saturday that they believe that no one — not even Syrian government personnel — was killed in the attack, which struck nonresidential facilities in the middle of the night.

Although options for more-expansive actions were also discussed, the plan that Trump ultimately endorsed, with a mix of air- and sea-launched missiles and sophisticated standoff airstrikes, was designed to minimize risk to U.S. and allied personnel and lessen the chances of unwanted escalation, officials said.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/big-price-to-pay-inside-trumps-decision-to-bomb-syria/2018/04/14/752bdd9a-3ff9-11e8-8d53-eba0ed2371cc_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3fd4fa747347

The U.S. Has Troops in Syria. So Do the Russians and Iranians. Here’s Where. -New York Times

Standard

“American troops landed in the ground war in Syria in late 2015 with a small contingent of Special Operations forces, hoping to forge an alliance with local militias and rebel groups that could fight the Islamic State.

In the months that followed, the number of American troops grew. Their Kurdish and Arab allies, later known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, started ground assaults that would eventually lead to the loss of Islamic State strongholds in the northern cities of Manbij and their de facto capital in Raqqa.

There are currently an estimated 2,000 American troops in Syria, according to the Pentagon. The influx of forces transformed what had been an initial band of commandos in armored pickups into a scaled-down version of the sprawling military presence in neighboring Iraq.”

 

 

 

 

What’s Behind Turkey’s Attack on Syria’s Kurds -NYTimes

Standard

This article provides some basic background on the Turkish assault on Syrian Kurdish positions in the Afrin area of Syria North West of Aleppo.

“Mr. Erdogan fears that the Syrian Kurds would use control of much of northern Syria to support the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the P.K.K., a separatist group that Turkey, the United States and the European Union all consider a terrorist group.

Here’s where things get complicated. The United States has armed a Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, that has played a crucial role in battling ISIS.

As the fight against ISIS nears an end, Turkey fears that the militia will turn its attention toward helping its Kurdish allies in Turkey. That fear is not entirely unjustified, according to Renad Mansour, a scholar at Chatham House in London, who points out that Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader imprisoned since 1999, was based in Kurdish Syria for nearly two decades.

Amy Austin Holmes, a fellow at the Wilson Center who has studied the Syrian Kurds, says that many of them joined the Protection Units “for the simple reason that they wanted to defend their towns, like Kobani, that were under attack from the Islamic State, and not necessarily because they were convinced by the ideology of the P.K.K.”

Michael M. Gunter, a political scientist at Tennessee Tech who also studies the Syrian Kurds, said, “The Turks overplay the threat, but it’s not completely a figment of their imagination.”

 

See: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/world/middleeast/whats-behind-turkeys-attack-on-syrias-kurds.html?referer=https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2F0K2P6MSeoe

Saudi Arabia Has No Idea How to Deal With Iran -New York Times

Standard

I think the main point of the article is quite correct: the Saudis are playing a bad hand poorly.

There are a few points that I am not too sure about though. First, the author claims “The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has been more successful. The effort to tame that country’s assertive regional policies has worked and the crisis has now been put on the back burner of international diplomacy.” However, Qatar is now closer to Iran than ever, and at a time when the Saudis needed to be building a durable anti-Iranian front, they have fractured the GCC. I don’t see this as successful, even if only relative to Riyadh’s other attempts to deal with Iran. In fact, I’m pretty sure Iran sees this as a win.

Second, the author warns that the war in Yemen may turn “the Houthi movement into something akin to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” Even if this is just be a turn of phrase, the Houthis-Iranian relationship is not comparable to Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah. The social/historical/religious connections are not there, and Iran’s military support for the Houthis has been limited.

Third, and finally, the author describes Saudi Arabia as “keen to reach out to Tehran despite provocative Iranian actions” and that “King Abdullah courted Presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami”. This has not been the case. Riyadh has never been keen to court Iran. In fact, it’s been the other way around. Tehran has been the suitor, and Riyadh has played hard to get. Rafsanjani spent most of the 1990s trying to start a dialogue with Riyadh, only to be rebuffed. Before Rafsanjani’s death earlier this year, both he and Rouhani  reached-out to Riyadh, but again with no success. Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis’ strategy for dealing with Tehran has been to try to keep Iran as isolated in the Persian Gulf as possible. Given the regional situation post Arab-Spring, I doubt diplomacy would have worked, but I think the article mischaracterizes this part of their relationship.

A similar article was also published in Foreign Policy entitled, Tehran Is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East (https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/11/21/tehran-is-winning-the-war-for-control-of-the-middle-east-saudi-arabia/) and I expect there will be more in the near future claiming that the the Iranian-Saudi Cold war is swinging Tehran’s way. Some, like the one above, will cast Iran as the aggressor and the Saudis as the victim, albeit a clumsy self-destructive victim. Others will portray the Saudis as the belligerents and Iran as misunderstood. Both narratives have a grain of truth. But both miss the main point: the rivalry in its present form is being driven by the regional instability caused by the Arab Spring. Ideology and incompetence have only made things worse.

Saudi princes among dozens detained in ‘corruption’ purge -BBC

Standard

Anti-corruption campaigns are a tried-and-true mechanism for dealing with opposition in authoritarian regimes. Perhaps the most notable example comes from the Assad regime in Syria during the 1970s. Hafez al-Assad used the tactic to clean house and build legitimacy. The purges allowed him to claim to be a champion of the people. More importantly, because corruption was endemic within the regime, everyone was potentially vulnerable. To a large degree the regime was built around corruption. Without oil money to distribute, the regime used government corruption as a form of patronage. Loyal officers and bureaucrats were given positions where they could extract bribes etc… as their reward. Therefore, almost be definition, if someone was in a position of authority, they were guilty of corruption. Assad could arrest anyone he wanted and everyone else was so terrified they made sure to toe the party line. After Hafez died, his son Basher repeated the exercise to ensure he would not be challenged by any of the old guard.
It should not be surprising then that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is launching a similar campaign. The Saudi political system is somewhat different from Syria’s but the logic of the anti-corruption game remains the same. Almost everyone is vulnerable, and those that escape are usually so relieved they don’t complain.
The initial public reaction has been positive, at least if the twitterverse can be trusted. However, there are a few things the King and Crown Prince should keep in mind. First, the regime is already going through a major transformation. The reforms instituted by the Crown Prince and his Father, King Salman, challenge the complex ruling formula that has held Saudi Arabia together since before the oil boom of the 1970s. As part of the Vision 2030 project, King Salmon and son are cutting back on government spending, privatizing parts of the national oil company, ARAMCO, and adopting an assertive and expensive new foreign policy posture in the region. Even gender roles are being challenged, with women being given the right to drive. The anti-corruption campaign is likely intended to preempt opposition to these changes. However, with so much happening the regime may be too fragile to withstand a major purge.

Second, the regime’s main strength has always been the cohesion of the royal family. Even before the oil boom, the main pillar of the regime was the al Saud itself. The logic was always simple: stay together or hang separately. Backing this logic up were a complex set of rules concerning succession and norms for governing within the family that smoothed out the rough edges and kept disputes to a minimum. However, by promoting the Crown Prince so quickly, the King has already violated most of these rules and norms. Moreover, Saudi specialist Joseph Kechichian suggests the intent is to “modernize the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too”.  If that is true, they may undermine the logic of maintaining cohesion may also be undermined. If the other members of the al Saud figure they are going to hang anyway, there may not be much incentive for them to stick together.

See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41874117

and

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-arrests-crownprince-insight/a-house-divided-how-saudi-crown-prince-purged-royal-family-rivals-idUSKBN1DA23M

and

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/bin-salman-saudi-consensus-rule-171107052615928.html

and

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-arrests/future-saudi-king-tightens-grip-on-power-with-arrests-including-prince-alwaleed-idUSKBN1D506P

See also: https://iranonline.blog/2016/09/30/eight-unprecedented-hours-with-mr-everything-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-bloomberg/

 

More hope for Kurdish unity in Syria after release of KNC prisoners -ARANEWS.NET

Standard

The schisms within the Syrian Kurdish community have never been as deep as the PUK-KPD split in Iraq, however it has been a significant division. This article provides some reason to believe they are making progress:

“The Syrian Kurdish security forces of the Asayish, that are affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), released several politicians from the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC) on Wednesday and Thursday after mediation by former French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner and former US diplomat Peter Galbraith that visited Rojava [or Syria’s Kurdistan] this week”.

“Zara Salih, a member of the KNC-linked Yekiti Party, told ARA News: “We look at this step [release of KNC members] as a positive sign and good start. After releasing all political prisoners from the Asayish detention centres we are ready to begin negtoations with PYD and TEV-DEM to reach a new deal.”

“The KNC is the main rival of the PYD, and backed by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PYD, on the other hand, is closer to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Both the KDP and PKK have significant influence over the Kurdish parties in Syria, but failed to reach an agreement to share power. As a result, the PYD became the most dominant actor in Syrian Kurdistan, after the People’s Protection Units (YPG) took control of most of the Kurdish regions in Syria in July 2012.”

More hope for Kurdish unity in Syria after release of KNC prisoners