End the "Proxy War" in Syria Before the Entire Region Is Engulfed in Flames
February 21, 2018
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Amos Harel / Haaretz & Jeffrey D. Sachs / Informed Comment, Common Dreams
The US government mischaracterizes the war as a civil war among Syrians, rather than a proxy war involving the US, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar. With Assad's advances, the civil war and America's reduced involvement in the region, Israel has been forced to make significant changes in its policies in the Golan Heights. Faced with an alarming risk of a renewed escalation of fighting, it's time for the United Nations Security Council to step in and end the bloodshed.
Israel Arming at Least Seven Syrian Rebel Groups
Sunni Islamist groups find themselves on Israel's good side
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(February 19, 2018) -- Israel's mounting interest in Syria's War, and in particular in picking fights with the Assad government, Iran, and any other Shi'ite factions in the country, have included reports by analysts of a growing amount of Israeli arms and ammunition flowing across the border for rebels.
Officially, Israel isn't a big fan on Sunni Islamist organizations. Such groups are the bulk of the rebellion on the Golan frontier, and that's made them groups Israel has a very serious interest in seeing survive and thrive on the border.
Analysts say Israel is directly arming at least seven groups in the area. To be clear, no specific factions are named in any of these reports, but past reports have put Israel on the side of some very unfashionable groups, like al-Qaeda's Nusra Front, which have been active in the area for some time.
Israeli officials have been very public in the past saying they prefer ISIS over the Alawite government in Syria. Expressing such a preference and arming terrorists are two different things, and Israel's effort to step up arming for Islamist groups risks regional blowback.
To Push Iran Back, Israel Ramps Up Support
For Syrian Rebels, 'Arming 7 Different Groups'
Amos Harel / Haaretz
(February 20, 2018) -- The recent tensions along the Israeli-Syrian border have been mainly aerial. But due to developments in the Syrian civil war, real changes are also taking place on the ground in the Golan Heights.
The Assad regime, which has gained the upper hand in the war, is now focusing on aggressively attacking rebel enclaves east of Damascus and in the northern Idlib province. But it is also gradually bolstering its presence in southern Syria, including in the Syrian Golan Heights. And accordingly, Israel its altering its deployment to prepare for what's to come.
The de-escalation agreement for southern Syria, which the United States, Russia and Jordan signed last November, included a promise to keep Iran and its affiliated Shi'ite militias away from the Israeli border.
Israel wanted the Iranians and their agents to be kept almost 60 kilometers from the frontier, east of the Damascus-Daraa road. But it didn't get its wish; the agreement committed to keep them only 5 kilometers from the front lines between the regime and the rebels.
What this means in practice is that the Iranians are allowed to come to within 20 kilometers of Israel's border in the central Syrian Golan and within just 5 kilometers in the northern Syrian Golan, which is controlled by Assad's army. But it's safe to assume that Hezbollah operatives and even members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards sometimes come right up to the border.
Putin's Syrian Dilemma: Back Israel or Iran?
The Assad regime has posts overlooking the Israeli border near Quneitra in the northern Golan, and it's possible that senior Hezbollah operatives and Iranian representatives visit these posts, which are quite close to Israeli territory.
That isn't the only important development in recent months. About a month ago, the regime retook the enclave of Beit Jin in the northern Golan from Sunni rebels; it's located less than 15 kilometers from the Israeli border.
Israel Defense Forces officers believe that sooner or later, Assad will make an effort to regain control of the rest of the Syrian Golan, in part because of the symbolic importance of sovereignty over the border with Israel. Members of the security cabinet, who toured the Golan with senior IDF officers almost two weeks ago, think the same.
Analyst Elizabeth Tsurkov, who has followed events in Syria closely for the last several years and has interviewed many rebel militiamen and residents of the Syrian Golan, published a detailed survey of developments in southern Syria in the War on the Rocks blog last week.
Tsurkov said the scope of Israel's involvement in southern Syria has changed in recent months in response to the regime's successes in the civil war and Iran's consolidation in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns about the latter on every possible occasion and has repeatedly said Israel will work to thwart it.
According to foreign media reports, over the past few months Israel has begun carrying out airstrikes against Syrian army facilities and targets linked to Iran and its Shi'ite militias, in addition to its longstanding targeting of convoys carrying arms to Hezbollah. Tsurkov also reported on other developments taking place.
Dozens of rebels who spoke with Tsurkov described a significant change in the amount of aid they receive from Israel. Moreover, she said at least seven Sunni rebel organizations in the Syrian Golan are now getting arms and ammunition from Israel, along with money to buy additional armaments.
This change has taken place at a time when America has greatly reduced its involvement in southern Syria. In January, the Trump administration closed the operations center the CIA ran in Amman, the Jordanian capital, which coordinated aid to rebel organizations in southern Syria. As a result, tens of thousands of rebels who received regular economic support from the U.S. have been bereft of this support.
At the same time, Israel has also increased its civilian aid to villages controlled by the rebels, including supplying medicine, food and clothing. Last summer, Israel admitted for the first time that it provides civilian aid to villages in the Syrian Golan, but declined to confirm claims that it also provides military aid.
Tsurkov said these Israeli moves are intended to help block the Assad regime's advance in the Golan and its conquest of rebel-held villages near the Israeli border. Nevertheless, she wrote, there's an expectations gap between the two sides.
The rebels expect unlimited Israeli support, and some are even hoping for help in their efforts to topple the regime. Israel's plans are much more modest, and are intended as a holding action.
Relatively moderate Sunni rebels, whom the Israeli defense establishment terms "the locals," control most of the Syrian-Israeli border, aside from two areas -- a regime-controlled area in the northern Golan and a section of the southern Golan controlled by a branch of the Islamic State, Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid. According to Tsurkov, Israel is also helping the rebels in their war against the Islamic State.
There have been skirmishes between ISIS and other rebel organizations over the last several years, but these battles have produced no significant change in the forces' deployment. However, rebels told Tsurkov that Israel has recently begun helping them by launching drone strikes and antitank missiles at Islamic State positions during these battles.
Ending America's Disastrous Role in Syria
Jeffrey D. Sachs / Informed Comment, Common Dreams
(February 19, 2018) -- America's official narrative has sought to conceal the scale and calamitous consequences of US efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That is understandable, because US efforts are in blatant violation of international law, which bars UN member states from supporting military action to overthrow other members' governments.
Much of the carnage that has ravaged Syria during the past seven years is due to the actions of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Now, faced with an alarming risk of a renewed escalation of fighting, it's time for the United Nations Security Council to step in to end the bloodshed, based on a new framework agreed by the Council's permanent members.
Here are the basics. In 2011, in the context of the Arab Spring, the US government, in conjunction with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel, decided to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, even though overthrowing another country's government amounts to a blatant violation of international law.
We know that in 2012, if not earlier, President Barack Obama authorized the CIA to work with America's allies in providing support to rebel forces composed of disaffected Syrians as well as non-Syrian fighters. US policymakers evidently expected Assad to fall quickly, as had occurred with the governments of Tunisia and Egypt in the early months of the Arab Spring.
The Assad regime is led by the minority Alawi Shia sect in a country where Alawites account for just 10% of the population, Sunni Muslims account for 75%, Christians make up 10%, and 5% are others, including Druze. The regional powers behind Assad's regime include Iran and Russia, which has a naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coastline.
Whereas America's goal in seeking to topple Assad was mainly to undercut Iranian and Russian influence, Turkey's motive was to expand its influence in former Ottoman lands and, more recently, to counter Kurdish ambitions for territorial autonomy, if not statehood, in Syria and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia wanted to undermine Iran's influence in Syria while expanding its own, while Israel, too, aimed to counter Iran, which threatens Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria near the Golan Heights, and Hamas in Gaza. Qatar, meanwhile, wanted to bring a Sunni Islamist regime to power.
The armed groups supported by the US and allies since 2011 were assembled under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. In fact, there was no single army, but rather competing armed groups with distinct backers, ideologies, and goals. The fighters ranged from dissident Syrians and autonomy-seeking Kurds to Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
While vast resources were devoted to overthrowing Assad, the effort ultimately failed, but not before causing massive bloodshed and displacing millions of Syrians. Many fled to Europe, fomenting Europe's refugee crisis and a surge in political support for Europe's anti-immigrant extreme right.
There were four main reasons for the failure to overthrow Assad. First, Assad's regime had backing among not only Alawites, but also Syrian Christians and other minorities who feared a repressive Sunni Islamist regime. Second, the US-led coalition was countered by Iran and Russia.
Third, when a splinter group of jihadists split away to form the Islamic State (ISIS), the US diverted significant resources to defeating it, rather than to toppling Assad. Finally, the anti-Assad forces have been deeply and chronically divided; for example, Turkey is in open conflict with the Kurdish fighters backed by the US.
All of these reasons for failure remain valid today. The war is at a stalemate. Only the bloodshed continues.
America's official narrative has sought to conceal the scale and calamitous consequences of US efforts -- in defiance of international law and the UN Charter -- to overthrow Assad. While the US vehemently complains about Russian and Iranian influence in Syria, America and its allies have repeatedly violated Syrian sovereignty.
The US government mischaracterizes the war as a civil war among Syrians, rather than a proxy war involving the US, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar.
In July 2017, US President Donald Trump announced the end of CIA support for the Syrian rebels. In practice, though, US engagement continues, though now it is apparently aimed more at weakening Assad than overthrowing him.
As part of America's continued war-making, the Pentagon announced in December that US forces would remain indefinitely in Syria, ostensibly to support anti-Assad rebel forces in areas captured from ISIS, and of course without the assent of the Syrian government.
The war is in fact at risk of a new round of escalation. When Assad's regime recently attacked anti-Assad rebels, the US coalition launched airstrikes that killed around 100 Syrian troops and an unknown number of Russian fighters.
Following this show of force, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis disingenuously stated that, "Obviously, we are not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war." In addition, Israel recently attacked Iranian positions in Syria.
The US and its allies should face reality and accept the persistence of Assad's regime, despicable as it may be. The UN Security Council, backed by the US, Russia, and the other major powers, should step in with peacekeepers to restore Syrian sovereignty and urgent public services, while blocking attempts at vengeance by the Assad regime against former rebels or their civilian supporters.
Yes, the Assad regime would remain in power, and Iran and Russia would maintain their influence in Syria. But the US official delusion that America can call the shots in Syria by choosing who rules, and with which allies, would end.
It's long past time for a far more realistic approach, in which the Security Council pushes Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel into a pragmatic peace that ends the bloodshed and allows the Syrian people to resume their lives and livelihoods.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, and is director of the Millennium Villages Project. A recent survey by The Economist Magazine ranked Professor Sachs as among the world's three most influential living economists of the past decade. Sachs is the author, most recently, of The Age of Sustainable Development, 2015 with Ban Ki-moon.
Licensed from Project Syndicate
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