Friday, 16 November 2012

The Relevence of Israel and Gaza - Stratfor, Nov 16

It would be a mistake to argue over whether a war is about to break out between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. A war has been under way for several months, with Hamas launching Qassam rockets into Israeli territory and Israeli aircraft carrying out raids on Gaza. In point of fact, a war has been ongoing between various Palestinian entities and Israeli organizations since before the founding of the Israeli state.

When Israel was founded, its creation intersected with the fate of the British Empire, the rise of American and Soviet power and the future of the Mediterranean Basin. The Soviets first supplied weapons to Israel through Czechoslovakia, while the British armed and led Jordan's Arab Legion and underwrote the Egyptian army. Later, the French, seeking to retain their hold in the Middle East, became Israel's main foreign patron.
The moral arguments on each side have been heard and are persuasive to the side making it, and not to the other. The point is that the war has been going on for a long time, and has made less and less difference to the rest of the world, eloquent protests notwithstanding. We are not speaking here of impotent gestures and self-satisfying rages on both sides. Rather, we are speaking of geopolitical interest in the outcome of the war.
By the 1950s, the Soviets had switched sides to become the patron of Egypt and Syria, the United States formed an alliance with Turkey through NATO, and Israel became the wedge between Egypt and Syria. The Palestinians, under the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasser Arafat, received weapons and support from the Soviets, and Moscow used this alliance to counter Israel and U.S. activity in Western Europe.
Under these circumstances, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intersected fundamental geopolitical interests of declining and rising empires and the struggle between rising powers for the inheritance of the European imperial system. Israel and Palestine occupied the same strategic point that the Romans had to have: the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. It was the point at which three continents met. Any Mediterranean power had to have it to anchor its position in the Mediterranean Basin. Any eastern or southern power needed it to access the other and the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel and Palestine were in many ways the tipping point of the Cold War. If Israel fell, the Soviets would control the eastern Mediterranean, given their hold on Egypt and Syria. Turkey would be isolated. If the United States held it then the Soviets would have fragments in the Eastern Mediterranean, not supporting each other and unable to give the Soviets a stable foundation. Control of the Eastern Mediterranean and bordering countries could change the balance of power not just in the region, but ultimately across the globe.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was only one dimension of the regional conflict but it was not a trivial dimension. Any action or reaction by either side could affect regional countries, which in turn were aligned with one of the global powers. The possibility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intersecting with other conflicts was very real and that gave both Israel and the Palestinians influence beyond their intrinsic significance. It was geography and geopolitics that gave weight to the conflict.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, there was only one global power and without a challenge to its power, the fate of the region fell in importance. The U.S.-jihadist wars would appear to have made it more important, inasmuch as groups like Hamas appeared to be part of the jihadist movement, but the fact was that the movement -- while able to inflict damage in limited ways -- was not a challenger for global dominance. Indeed, it was highly fragmented, quite idiosyncratic and remarkably disorganized. No matter how the United States responded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the case simply couldn't be made that the fate of the region affected the global balance as it had in the 1960s or 1970s.
As the United States withdraws from the region and Iran suffers a significant reversal in Syria, the fate of the region becomes less significant. Whether the Israelis and Palestinians fought mattered in 1970 far more than it does today. A peace process, fantasy or not, is not a major priority.
The Egyptians remain heavily influenced by the military and the military is not about to allow Gaza's problems to spill into Egypt. Their forces surrounded Gaza and went after jihadists in the Sinai in recent months. The Syrians are busy fighting each other and the Jordanian regime has never forgiven the Palestinians for their attempt to end Hashemite rule in 1970. The Iranians are struggling to hold their position in the region and the United States under U.S. President Barack Obama is not focused on foreign policy, let alone on another Israeli-Palestinian battle.
This is the reality of the current round of the Palestinian-Israeli war. It matters to the Palestinians and Israelis but not to the world, beyond those who demand a world that is just and whose definition of justice is what they believe to be just. Where the world once hung on the wars of the region, it now sees this as simply another upswing in an ongoing and unending conflict.
Today no one but the combatants and their unarmed champions care. This, however, makes it a notable point in history. It is the moment at which both sides might realize that they are on their own and, therefore, become interested in peace. But with thoughts like that we might want to pass around a petition, fantasizing that a petition constitutes action. But indifference from the world is a harsh sort of reality.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Bombing of Maarat al Noaman - brief

The bombing of Maarat al Noaman on Oct 19th highlights a significant shift in tactics for both sides of this conflict.

The town has been a target for rebel forces for some time, due to it's crucial strategic position on a major cross roads on the M5 highway, between Aleppo and Damascus, and they had only just taken it.

Facing a stalemate in the city of Aleppo, rebel groups have been attempting for some time, to cut off supplies arriving from Latakia and Damascus. Thereby placing considerable pressure on regime troops and increasing their odds in the city.

It had been thought that Assad might send reinforcements from Damascus to deal with this situation - (which would have weakened his grip there) but instead he chose to send jets and demolish it.

While this danger always existed, many thought he might be somewhat restrained in this region, as he sought to win back 'hearts and minds'. Instead it becomes clear that he has given up all hope of doing this, and at all costs will keep this supply line open.

It also places considerable pressure on the rebels, who must now deal with the repercussions of this horrific bomb. It remains to be seen if civilians will continue to stay behind the rebels, or whether perhaps they begin to wishing that things went back to how they once were.

Friday, 5 October 2012

PKK in syria

On the 3rd October Syrian troops attempting to regain control of the Alshmal gate along the border with Turkey shelled the area, hitting the nearby Turkish town of Akcakele. They killed 5 members of the same family and wounded others.

The Syrians, desperate to quell the steady stream of weapons and aid coming through the open borders have been trying for some time to retake this area in Idlib province, but with no success. This attack was an escalation of the methods being used, and a sign of their increased frustration in the region.

Turkey retaliated, and using their radar system pinpointed the origin of the shells destroying artillery emplacements and killing a number of syrian soldiers.

While the Syrian government denies targeting the village, and voiced sympathy for the dead, there is no doubt it was a suitably aggressive move for Turkey, and Erdogan retaliated as many Turks hoped he would.

In the past many have been upset by his failure to act following skirmishes along the border, such as the downing of a Turkish plane in June and other shootings, so domestically this was a popular move.

And it is domestically that this will have the biggest impact, for soon after the bombing, the Turkish government met to discuss what actions it would take, and quickly gave the military the right to deploy troops to other countries.

Erdogan has said that by no means does this amount to a declaration of war, saying it is merely a sign that he will not be complacent or accept such 'mistakes', but what it does do, very significantly, is allow him to strike at PKK bases inside Syria, (as well as continuing to attack Kurdish bases in N.Iraq)

This is relevant for 2 reasons. First of all it is imperative for the Turks that they counter the rise of Kurdish autonomy, especially after their growing power in N. Iraq. One of the things that Turkey is most afraid of is the rise of the Kurds in the wake of Assad’s downfall, having already armed them heavily to use as a militia against the FSA.
Just yesterday in fact the PKK yesterday set up road blocks near the N.Western town of Afrin to hold it for the government, and already we have seen them attacking the FSA Farouk brigade in Idlib.

Secondly it is well known that Erdogan hopes to change the Turkish political system to a presidential or semi-presidential one. He is holding presidential elections in 2013 (with himself running as president) but to do so he needs the support of the ultra nationalist, anti kurdish party who hold a crucial 52 seats in parliament. Appeasing their desire to attack Kurdish bases will go a long way to getting this approval.

And so today’s move is not so much about how Turkey chooses to deal with the immediate Syrian crisis on it’s border (it will never attack without the full backing of NATO, nor without a long term solution in mind) but it does show that it is willing (while international eyes are turned in other directions) to deal with the Kurdish issue in a far more permanent and aggressive way.

Expect to see attacks on Kurdish bases rise.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Initial soundings....

We met some of our contacts today, and what we have learnt is worrying. Things on the ground have changed immensely since we were last here, and new fronts in the battle are opening up.

While the main war between rebels and the regime continues stronger than ever, the most talked about is that between jihadis, salafis and the FSA. The FSA is doing it's best to distance itself from these other elements but this is hard.

Fighters from around the world have begun to arrive - some in support of the legitimate uprising against Assad, but others to wage jihad against the Shi'ites. This has caused ripples than can be felt everywhere and some rebels have gone as far as to admit that things may have been better under Assad than they will be following his departure. One thing that everyone agrees on is that this conflict will continue for many years to come.

With Saudi, Quatar, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, China and the US all having a stake in this, and attempting in one way or another to destabilize elements in the region, this is not at all surprising; though I will delve into politics tomorrow.

In the mean time the immediacy of staying alive in the face of a far greater military force remains the main concern, and the regime continues to shell and attack from the air. This goes on unabated claiming many innocent lives per day, and should remain at the forefront of our minds.

Food is at a low, inflation impossibly high, and basic medical supplies in grave shortage. The FSA has better weapons now– rockets and heavy artillery, though nothing to counter the regime. They have shot down 14 planes using new weapons; supposedly sourced from Turkey, and they continue to be armed and financed in a big way.

There are rumours of a secret agreement between the US, UK, Saudi, Turkey and Qatar, that allows Turkish weapons to be filtered through to the rebels, though at present I have only little evidence of this.

The border with Turkey is no longer held by the regime and the FSA controls the vast majority of northern territories. As such we should be expected to cross through legitimate border crossings with no problems – however infighting between rebels means this may not be true. I can’t mention details yet, but it may be better for us to cross at night and illegally, than to go through a certain gate, such is the hostility.

There continues to be more FSA infighting between urban and rural brigades, (often the well-financed ones vs the not so well financed.

There are also arguments between defectors within the FSA (who are accused of abandoning a sinking ship,) and those Syrians who have fought the regime from the beginning. (The FSA leaderships's recent move to inside Syria, is an attempt to validate it’s position and unite the factions.)

Sources also tell us that:

-Barrel bombs are the new weapon of choice for the Syrian regime – packed full of TNT, oil and shrapnel they are dropped from helicopters and are far more devastating than other weapons.

-Farouk brigade is fighting a full on conflict with jihadi's in idlib province

-Hamas is now also at odds with the regime.

-Shipments from Benghazi to Mercine carrying both medicines and arms arrive sporadically.

- the CIA has been infiltrating Syria in the guise of western journalists in order to assess jihadi strengths;

We anticipate many stories once inside Syria; Foreign fighters, field hospitals, urban clashes, western involvement, and training camps.  Though once again our true plans must remain a secret, and I must leave you here.

Monday, 23 April 2012


A few days ago, plans were in place and we were ready to leave, when at the last minute our crossing was cancelled. For various reasons this was the best option, but there is little worse than sitting here now, unable to go forward, twiddling our thumbs and waiting to go.

We’ve heard horror stories about journalists who are dropped off near Syrian military emplacements, only to wait hours for somebody to pick them up; about journalists who have paid smugglers the exorbitant cost of crossing, only to be abandoned near the border; and about others, who have been taken straight to Turkish border guards, in return for the sizeable bounty on their heads.

And so it is that we are biding our time, waiting for that moment when we are alone on the ground, aware of UN movements and accompanied by the FSA. In the mean time my ragged beard is growing nicely, and Rick is dying his red hair.

These are just some of the precautions we must take to avoid being caught by the Shabiha, though it will still be hard not to stand out. Other than this we’ll be moving every hour; never staying in a building for more than a night; staying in contact with activists in the surrounding region, and keeping our precise plans secret. We’ll have no traceable sat equipment, and body armour will be worn under loose clothing; probably without a helmet. We may even throw on some local garb – because that surely will flummox them.

As to what’s happening on the ground, we hear many things. As the UN observers move from town to town they are swamped by activists and shown buildings that have been hit. They speak to people who have been affected and they occasionally encounter small arms fire.

But while this may be a fine starting point it does little good. The UN know about the attacks on the cities but are not there to prove they happened. Instead they are there to prove that the ceasefire is being broken, which Assad can make sure they won’t do.

Soldiers who are supposed to have left towns and cities (one of the conditions of the ceasefire,) have merely changed into police uniforms, and they continue to attack in towns where the UN is not present. We continue to hear about (and have verified reports of) Russian made HIP helicopters fitted with rockets, and know they have attacked mountain towns where the favoured T62 tanks can’t reach. We will be looking for evidence of these attacks.

More UN observers would surely make it harder for Assad, but to be honest, it appears as if the ceasefire is merely a tactic to delay the impending war. Perhaps not this month or in five or in 10, but eventually it must come. The opposition will not rest until Assad is gone, and he in turn will not step down. His brother Maher al Assad, who some say is as powerful as Bashar himself, is leader of the republican guard, and of the 4th armoured division (that which flattened Homs,) and is often cited as the power behind the throne. His reputation is that of a true brute.

We’ve been speaking also to defectors, one of whom was an officer in the same 4th armoured division, and we now know that moving around, although dangerous, is do-able. In our favour the Syrian army is entirely reliant on their tanks and rarely leave the safety of their armoured positions. Unlike western armies who patrol on the ground to secure areas, the Syrians prefer to contain areas, then simply bomb them – that or attack with indiscriminate sniper fire. Of this I am concerned.

We have been learning about the supply of weapons and money into the country, mainly from Quatar and Saudi Arabia. While money is being collected worldwide, little of it is getting to the people who need it, and a lot sits in bank accounts waiting to be used, or siphoned off by the greedy. That people can do this when it hinders the protection of others is incredible, but such is behaviour in a culture that thrives off corruption.

The Syrians have also claimed that foreign involvement and support for the opposition is a violation of their sovereignty, when to be honest what this really is, is a cold war of sorts fought between states desperate to retain or gain control of Syria. It is ironic that while the regime makes these accusations, it fails to address the massive support they receive from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq.

The Iranian issue is an interesting one. While they try to spread their sphere of influence in the region, they are also trying to stave off the ‘green revolution’ at home and should Syria fall they are far more likely to be at threat from home grown opponents. Sanctions on Iran are having a profound effect on their ability to help other regimes; regimes that they need so much, and I am inclined to say their future rests partly on the outcome of this conflict. 

FSA members still have very few weapons – partly because nobody knows who to give them too. When they can buy weapons they can’t access money to buy them. AK bullets are $5/6 each and AK’s cost $3000, so well beyond the means of normal fighters. In Libya defectors came with their own weapons, and stockpiles were raided, but this seems unlikely here as the army simply isn’t defecting as it was there. While some people have resorted to buying RPG shells from Iraqi gangs the last group I spoke to got on 16 useable ones out of 100.

Arms dealers supplying Hezbollah have also been supplying some weapons to the rebels. But as Hezbollah are Assad’s allies they have instructed that only Ak’s and the occasional RPG can be sold– which against the heavy artillery of Assad, can do not good.

IF the West wants to get involved and overthrow the regime, the best thing they can do is create a buffer zone in the north, and impose a no fly zone. They will of course be wary of spending so much money in the lead up to the US election, (no fly zones cost millions a day), while also worrying about who will sweep into power in the aftermath, and what they in turn will do.

The Islamist issue is a concern here, and there are rumours that the longer the West refuses to help (some people have told me the West has ‘betrayed them’) then the more likely it is they will turn to the fundamentalist wahabi and salafi groups for funding…

We visited a school for the children of refugees who are not in camps; the only one… Many of the boys, some as young as 10, first arrived refusing to play games, claiming they were now men, and asking for weapons to return home and fight. They begin to show some hatred towards other groups and the great fear is, if Assad falls, we will see a bloody and horrible war of retribution.

At the moment though, where we are is calm, and until we cross the border Syria will continue to feel like a world away.

We wait and wait……

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Who to Trust

As fighter jets tear overhead and torrential rain blankets the region, we are ever more aware of the situation into which we go. Sitting just a few miles from the Syrian border, Antakya is our last stop before crossing into the unknown. It’s our last chance for a proper meal and a real bed; our last chance to check our gear, and our last chance to turn back. Though neither of us intends to…

Jutting down into Syria this part of Turkey thrives off trade with it’s troublesome neighbour, and with a relatively porous border, we are told that Syrian spies are everywhere. This has made it hard for us, as we meet fixers, smugglers, and members of the FSA, whose families are all at risk should they be caught. It is hard to know who to trust, and what to believe, but we have worked slowly and safely and only with those who can be vouched for.

Thanks to the long and porous border however we will be able to cross, and at the moment we are evaluating the options. I can’t name them here, but they involve a late night crawl under the noses of Syrian and Turkish border guards; on horseback and belly, under barbed wire and over walls. Once inside we will be met by a network of activists and taken deeper in.

Unlike Libya, which was swamped with journalists, this conflict seems largely untouched. We expected a media frenzy but have found only a few other journalists, and by coincidence a number of them are friends.

There are a few reasons I would say press is thin on the ground – though ultimately it’s because of the increased levels of danger.  First of all there is no ‘safe zone’ (as there was in Benghazzi), and no no-fly zone. The rebels are vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the army is not deserting at the same rate as they were in Libya, and the opposition is deeply fractured. Going in therefore means doing so with the underdogs - and the threat of being caught is very real.

Reports reaching us from inside the country suggest that the ceasefire is slipping away – but there’s little surprise there. Gunships are rumoured to have strafed towns in Idlib province and the Shabiha death squads still roam the countryside. Shelling continues in Homs and demonstrations in Aleppo are being crushed.

It is very clear that this is the most complicated yet of the Arab spring conflicts, and a few main factors are at play. Iran is trying to increase it’s regional sphere of influence and losing an allied Syria would be a huge blow. Iran also needs Syria to supply weapons to Hezbollah so will do what it can to keep Assad in power.

Russia is also in a pivotal role and has a number of trade deals with Syria – weapons and oil. It also has it’s only naval base outside the ex-ussr here, and are very happy with the status quo.
At the same time, they have been on the wrong side of a few conflicts recently, namely Libya and Iraq, and in doing so have missed out on huge post-war contracts. It is possible therefore that their stance will change if the tide turns against Assad, and their recent meeting with Syrian opposition groups suggests they are willing to keep options open. I believe they must be lobbied and pressured by the international community to do so or else there can be no UN resolution.

America and France, who led in Libya, will do nothing till after their elections, and while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are rumoured to be giving money and weapons, nobody knows where it goes, and there is no evidence of it on the ground. Until these other states get involved Assad will have an easy task.

Meanwhile here in Antakya, we wait and watch, and our only danger is being pelted by street urchins. I will continue to write until we go in..

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Idlib has been taken by Syrian troops, and our route in is apparently mined. We're holding back for the moment but will continue to watch closely.
Rumours of arms shipments from Libya abound, and I don't believe the status quo will prevail. but for the moment we stay put.

As Ricks says, we would rather report the news than be the news.