What's Next for Syria? A Call to Stop Bombing a Nation and Arming Endless Conflict
February 13, 2016
Simon Lewis / TIME Magazine & Vitaly Naumkin / Al Monitor & The US Peace Council
Syria's five-year-old war has claimed 470,000 lives -- 11.5% of Syria's people have been killed or injured. There are three scenarios for the war-torn country: gradual reconciliation through the Geneva dialogue; a military victory by President Bashar al-Assad or; a major war involving global powers. It's time to: Stop bombing Syria's economic infrastructure in the name of fighting ISIS, Stop injecting foreign fighters into Syria, Stop funding and arming the combatants in Syria.
The Death Toll From Syria's War Is
Actually 470,000, New Research Claims
Simon Lewis / TIME Magazine
(February 11, 2016) -- The Syrian Center for Policy Research says that 11.5% of Syria's population has been killed or injured. The five-year-old war in Syria has claimed 470,000 lives, according to new research that almost doubles previous estimates about the human cost of the conflict.
The Guardian reported details of a report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, due to be launched in Beirut on Thursday, that says life expectancy in Syria has dropped to just 55.4 years. Before the conflict Syrians could expect to live to the age of 70.
Syria's population was about 21 million when an uprising against the regime of Bashar Assad began in 2011. Antigovernment protests were quelled by a brutal crackdown, sparking a civil war that is now fought by numerous armies, including several radical Islamist groups, and draws funding from myriad foreign powers.
Since the war started, 11.5% of Syrians have been killed or injured, the report says, according to the Guardian. Some 13.8 million Syrians have lost their means of earning a living. Altogether 45% of the prewar population has been forced to move -- including more than 4 million who have fled the country and 6.36 million displaced within Syria.
The UN's human-rights office has estimated that more than 250,000 have died, but gave up recording the fatalities from the war in mid-2014 because it couldn't get hold of reliable data.
The Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates from fact-finding conducted on the ground in Syria that 400,000 people have been killed by the conflict itself, with another 70,000 dying because of the war's knock-on effects -- inadequate health care and medicine, the spread of disease through unsanitary conditions for the displaced people, and lack of access to food or clean water.
What's Next for Syria?
Vitaly Naumkin / Al Monitor
(February 10, 2016) -- Russia, like most global and regional powers, continues to support a political solution to the Syrian crisis based on the June 2012 Geneva communique and agreements reached in 2015 by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna.
However, the Kremlin does not believe that a successful campaign against the Islamic State (IS) -- or any other terrorist group in Syria -- or a cease-fire are possible without closing the Syrian-Turkish border. A river of foreign jihadis, arms and merchandise is flowing into Syria, with contraband oil traveling in the opposite direction.
As Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the other day, "Stopping the flow of contraband across the Turkish-Syrian border that the extremists are feeding off is key to making the cease-fire work." It is clear that this will be the most striking issue at the ISSG meeting Feb. 11 in Munich.
Russia believes none of the parties to the conflict is capable of a military victory. However, recent military successes scored by the Syrian army in the south with Hezbollah's support and especially in the north have been interpreted by the media as a tipping point in the war.
Indeed, the army's encirclement of Aleppo and cutting off the militants' northern supply route from Turkey have radically shifted the balance of force in Assad's favor. Also emblematic was the liberation of the Shiite enclaves of Nubl and al-Zahra that had been besieged by the rebels for three years.
Incidentally, these events have disproved allegations that Russia's strikes are targeting moderate opposition forces rather than terrorists. In fact, the main force that has been targeted north of Aleppo is the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra.
However, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have recently begun fighting each other, while Nur ad-Din az-Zinki has left the Aleppo area and the Turkmens are fighting IS units near Aleppo, rather than Assad's forces.
Russia sees no reason why it should not target the positions of al-Nusra, which is part of al-Qaeda and is using as a front an alliance with those whose ideological views can be considered moderate.
Al-Nusra, just like IS, is among the main targets of the Russian air force. At the same time, Moscow confirms that it stands ready to reach an agreement with moderate opposition groups, but still has differences with the Western and regional ISSG partners over who can or cannot be categorized as terrorists.
The Assad government forces could be expected to launch a new offensive shortly on the western supply route to the rebels. Clearly, in addition to purely military objectives, including the establishment of a bridgehead for a massive offensive on IS strongholds in the east, Damascus is maneuvering for a good starting position at the Geneva talks.
The balance of forces in the north of the country has also changed in favor of the Democratic Forces of Syria, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militia in which the Kurdish People's Protection Units plays the leading role.
It may be argued, especially after they captured the northern villages of al-Ziyara and al-Harba, that the Kurds are close to achieving their main strategic goal of establishing an extended control line along the Syrian-Turkish border -- which, in Moscow's opinion, is helping to bring closer the positions of the government forces and the Syrian Kurds.
However, to rule out any relapse of animosity between them, Moscow will need to convince Damascus to accept Kurdish self-determination. Indeed, devising a concept of decentralization for a future Syria that would be acceptable to all is the most important task in any plan for a Syrian resolution.
Military analysts expect that the Kurds may soon launch an offensive in the 60-mile section of the Jarabulus corridor between Turkey and IS, which is like waiving a red flag in front of Ankara. But will Turkey risk an open intervention in Syria in that case? What response would come from Washington, which supports the Kurds militarily (as does Russia)?
That consideration might be what recently prompted Moscow to considerably strengthen its air contingent in Latakia by deploying multipurpose Sukhoi-35S fighter planes and upgrading Syrian MiG29s and MiG29CMTs.
Turkey finds it unacceptable to have Kurds lined up along its border with Syria and has repeatedly threatened to intervene militarily if a Kurdish-controlled corridor is established. While rebutting Russia's accusations that it is preparing a ground intervention, Turkey is at the same time stepping up its anti-Russian rhetoric.
Moscow was baffled by reports over the past few days that Saudi Arabia, followed by Bahrain, are ready to send their ground troops to Syria to "take part in the fight against [IS]." It is anybody's guess where, how and by what right they might intervene.
This could escalate into a full-blown regional war with the involvement of global powers, given Iran's position and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem' statement that "any ground intervention on Syrian territory without government authorization would amount to an aggression."
According to the nonprofit Conflicts Forum, Russia has agreed with the Syrian government's new rules of engagement "that will allow these Syrian air force aircraft to attack any threat to Syrian sovereignty -- without reference to higher authority."
It is not by accident, therefore, that shortly before the ISSG meeting in Munich, the king of Bahrain -- who maintains friendly relations with Moscow -- was invited to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Among all Gulf Cooperation Council member states, Bahrain is known to be the first one to join Riyadh's initiatives.
Moscow was equally puzzled by some US politicians' calls for establishing a security zone and a no-fly zone in Syria, using a Turkish recipe that Washington rejected only recently.
None of the above suggests that Moscow is banking on Damascus' military victory. It wants to see inter-Syrian negotiations resumed, but not on the terms proposed by the Riyadh group of opposition members who put forth preconditions.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in his opening remarks Februaty 4 at the Yevgeny Primakov Foreign Policy Cooperation Center in Moscow, spoke about the threat posed by "ungoverned spaces" in the Middle East to the United States and Russia alike. Could this rapidly growing threat force the two countries to put aside their differences and jointly counter potential disintegration of the regional system of nation states, rampant terrorism and violence?
Translator: Yuri Somov
SYRIA: Let Us Make Our
Collective Voice of Reason Be Heard
An Urgent Appeal by the US Peace Council
To All of Our Friends in the Peace Movement
(January 24, 2016) -- As you are all well aware, after almost half a decade of violent proxy war, terrorism, and bloodshed in Syria, the warring parties have agreed to meet once again, this time in Geneva, Switzerland, to find a political solution to the ongoing war that has cost the lives of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children, has left millions of Syrians homeless, and has turned millions of others into refugees flooding Syria's neighboring countries and Europe. Many experts believe that this is the last chance for achieving a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.
It is also well known that these negotiations are being held under extremely complicated circumstances. This conflict has more than two sides and it is certainly not solely about the government of Syria and its opposition.
Here we are also dealing with regional power rivalries, with each country pursuing its own interests, and the drive by the United States and NATO states to redraw the map of the Middle East to achieve their own imperial goals. It is also part and parcel of the global drive to encircle, contain, and subdue Russia and China, as a continuation of the neocons' global strategy.
At the global level, the United States and NATO consider Syria as a stepping stone toward a regime change in Iran and ultimately in Russia, and are trying to bring Syria under the West and NATO control by any means possible, including financing, organizing, and arming the militant/terrorist groups fighting the Syrian government, either directly or by using their proxy states and regional allies.
This has inevitably put the US on a dangerous confrontation course with Russia, which sees the overthrow of the Syrian government and establishment of another pro-NATO state near its borders as a major threat to its national security. Russia considers this an extension of what NATO is doing in Ukraine. The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by NATO member Turkey was a clear escalation of this dangerous and intentional confrontation.
At the regional level, the conflict cannot be reduced to a war between two opposing camps only. It is not simply the case of Syria, Iran and Russia on the one side, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and others, on the other side.
Although all of the countries in the latter group are acting within the overall US/NATO plan for regime change in Syria, each of them has its own particular agenda for Syria and the region as well, and is trying to push the events in the direction that serves its own interests.
Both Saudi Arabia (closest US ally after Israel) and Qatar (home of the US Central Command) are dead bent on overthrowing the Assad government by use of force. They have been acting as the main dispensers of money and arms to the militant rebels and foreign terrorists in Syria.
Saudi Arabia, particularly, has been considering Iran as its main rival and enemy in the region ever since the 1979 revolution that took Iran out of the US/NATO sphere of influence. For the Saudis, the overthrow of Assad's Syria, the only Arab state independent of US manipulation and a long-time ally of Iran in the Middle East, serves to weaken Iran and ultimately pave the way for regime change in that country.
However, despite agreeing on the goal of forced regime change in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have different ideas about who should replace the Assad government. For the Saudis, who are intent on spreading their own extremist Wahhabi version of Islam in the region, the favorites are ISIS, Al-Qaeda-related groups like al-Nusra Front, and other extremist Islamic groups like the Islam Army, and the Asala wa Tanmiya Front (Authenticity and Growth Front, also supported by US).
On the other hand, Qatar, like Turkey, supports Islamist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, like the Sham Legion and the Turkish-funded Ahrar al-Sham. In many cases, each of these groups is itself a coalition of dozens of Islamist groups fighting in Syria, many of whom are in fact foreign fighters.
All in all, according to BBC, "there are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups in Syria, commanding an estimated 100,000 fighters," each, of course, under the control or influence of one or more of anti-Assad governments involved.
Until recently the main focus of these governments and the United States was on an armed overthrow of the Assad government, and the US made the policy of "Assad must go" a pre-condition for any direct negotiations with the government of Syria.
However, the entry of Russian military into the scene has made a military victory for the Western powers and their regional allies virtually impossible and, hence, has forced the US to soften its position on the method, but not goal, of removing Assad.
As a result, the focus has now shifted to finding a way for removing the Assad government from power through "peaceful" negotiations with the participation of both the Syrian government and the opposition, and allowing for a "transitional period" for regime change. But there are several sticky points that need to be resolved for these negotiations to proceed and bring any results.
The first fundamental issue here is who should be considered as a legitimate opposition and therefore be allowed to participate in the negotiations. As far as Syrian government is concerned, all those who have engaged in violent armed struggle against the legitimate Syrian state, and are responsible for the death and injury of tens of thousands, should be considered terrorists and must be excluded.
Both Iran and Russia have announced their support for the Syrian position. According to Russian Foreign Ministry, "We are still convinced that terrorists of all stripes should be excluded from the political process in Syria. . . ."
But this is not what the US and its regional allies have in mind. They are insisting on inclusion of what they term "moderate" armed fighters in the negotiations. Iran's response: "the terrorists will never be allowed to introduce themselves as moderate opposition and decide the future of Syria and the region."
Syrian government, on its part, has announced it is ready to attend peace talks with the opposition in Geneva this month, but it wants to see lists of the opposition groups who were due to attend, and ensure that "terrorist" groups would not be represented.
Aside from the issues of who is a terrorist and who is part of the legitimate opposition, another round of maneuvering is under way as well: Each of these hostile countries is now jockeying for the inclusion of its own favorite fighters and the exclusion of those of others in the upcoming negotiations.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, is pushing for inclusion of all armed Islamist fighters, and to achieve this, in December of 2015, it organized a three-day conference in Riyadh consisting of over 100 extremist Islamist rebel groups who are calling for regime change in Syria, including some of those considered to be terrorist by the United States.
According to Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, "what is noteworthy is the presence of some terrorist groups linked to ISIL in the Riyadh Conference."
The objective of this conference, titled "Conference of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces," was to unite these armed extremist forces around a common platform for the negotiations. On December 10, 2015, the conference issued its "Final Statement," which not only called for "the establishment of a state . . . with no place for Bashar al-Assad or the symbols and pillars of his regime in it or any coming political arrangements," but took the matter a step further by "stress[ing] that Bashar al-Assad and his circle leave office at the beginning of the transitional period," in other words, regime change from the beginning.
There is no doubt that such a position is aimed at sabotaging the negotiations even before they start. Although the Saudi position is in conflict with the current US position, nevertheless, Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Saudis for holding the Riyadh Conference.
The Saudis' motive for sabotaging the negotiations, as well as their recent mass execution of 47 people, including a Shi'ite clergy, stems from their nervousness about closer ties that might develop between Iran and the United States as a result of their nuclear agreement, and potential new agreements during Syrian negotiations.
They consider a political settlement of the Syrian conflict without an immediate removal of Assad from power as a step toward ending Iran's isolation and strengthening its position in the region.
What is more significant about the Riyadh Conference, however, is not who participated, but which groups were not allowed to attend.
The Saudis made sure that none of the internal moderate (unarmed and non-violent) opposition forces are invited -- forces like the Solidarity Party, National Youth Party, and the National Democratic Action Body, who, as a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report concedes, "may very well reflect the views of a significant number of Syrians who would like to see reforms, but who, at the end of the day, prefer Assad over the rebels."
Nor were any Kurdish opposition forces invited to the Riyadh Conference. As Iran's Fars News Agency complained the day after the Riyad Conference, "Saudi Arabia hosted a three-day meeting of terrorist groups in Riyadh on December 8-10. The Syrian Kurds, who control large parts of the Northern Syria, had not been invited, but Al-Qaeda's official branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham terrorist groups were there. . . ."
The exclusion of Kurds is also an objective of Turkish government. The Kurds have been a major force in fighting ISIS in the northern part of Syria, but they are at the same time being bombed by the Turkish air force in northern Syria. In effect, Turkey is also directly helping ISIS by opening its borders to the armed militant groups and buying stolen Syrian oil from ISIS. Turkish government does not want to see the inclusion of Kurds (who constitute a third of the Syrian population) in fear that such a move will strengthen the hand of Kurdish organizations like the PKK within Turkey. Israel plays a related role by secretly providing medical care to the wounded ISIS fighters through its borders with Syria along the occupied Golan Heights.
It is clear that these attempts to exclude from negotiations all the internal moderate forces in Syria that represent "a significant number of Syrians" and the Kurds, who constitute one-third of the Syrian population, will only stack the cards against the Syrian people in favor of foreign governments and Islamic extremist/terrorist groups in Syria -- an outcome which will not only fail to lead to any peace, but is bound to promote conflagration of the conflict in the region and possible war between the US/NATO Alliance and Russia, both major nuclear-weapons powers.
Dear friends and comrades in the peace movement,
Looking at the whole picture, there is no doubt that we are faced with a dangerously explosive situation in Syria and the Middle East. The true voices of the Syrian people have been silenced by foreign-imposed war and terrorism. We in the US peace and anti-war movement cannot passively watch the intrigues, deceptions and manipulations, which are leading to yet another disaster. We should raise our voices of reason in support of the people of Syria loudly and demand that all parties involved in the Syrian negotiations work honestly and sincerely toward a peaceful solution to the conflict.
We appeal to all of you to help organize demonstrations in front of your local Congressional offices and demand that your Congressperson and Senator pressure the Obama Administration to guarantee that Syrian people are allowed to participate in the negotiations freely, and that the Syrian people alone are allowed to decide the future of their country, not foreign powers and their proxy forces.
We call on all activists in the peace movement to flood the emails and phone lines of the White House and the State Department and demand the following:
1) Stop all foreign efforts to force regime change in Syria:
a) Stop bombing Syrian economic infrastructure in the name of fighting ISIS.
b) Stop injecting foreign fighters into Syria.
c) Stop funding, organizing and arming the combatants in Syria.
2) Let the Syrians themselves decide the future of their country free of all foreign intervention:
a) Allow all truly moderate internal opposition groups and the Kurdish organizations to participate in the negotiations.
b) Exclude no segment of the Syrian population from peace negotiations.
c) Exclude all foreign opposition forces, as well as all terrorist organizations, from the negotiations.
3. Lift all sanctions on Syria. Provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. Help the Syrian refugees settle wherever they want -- including back in Syria.
4. End all wars of aggression, all forms of foreign occupation, and all externally-generated regime change policies in the region.
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