Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review: The Middle East in Transition – Between Hope & Turmoil

From our 20 September LDESP Middle East News Update.

Just as it seemed that the U.S. was poised for increased military intervention in the Middle East, events in the region took an unexpected, albeit characteristically such, turn. It seems that every country from the Levant to the Gulf to North Africa is in serious flux and their fortunes could take a different direction at any time. The New York Time’s David Sanger does an excellent job explaining this volatility, looking specifically at the “Quick Turn of Fortunes as Diplomatic Options Open Up with Syria and Iran”:

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Image source: “Russia, U.S. Plot Peace Talks for Syria,” Christian Science Monitor

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Image source: “Russia, U.S. Plot Peace Talks for Syria,” Christian Science Monitor

“Only two weeks after Washington and the nation were debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama finds himself at the opening stages of two unexpected diplomatic initiatives with America’s biggest adversaries in the Middle East, each fraught with opportunity and danger.

Without much warning, diplomacy is suddenly alive again after a decade of debilitating war in the region. After years of increasing tension with Iran, there is talk of finding a way for it to maintain a face-saving capacity to produce a very limited amount of nuclear fuel while allaying fears in the United States and Israel that it could race for a bomb.

Syria, given little room for maneuver, suddenly faces imminent deadlines to account for and surrender its chemical weapons stockpiles — or risk losing the support of its last ally, Russia.

“For Mr. Obama, it is a shift of fortunes that one senior American diplomat described this week as ‘head spinning.’”

In their more honest moments, White House officials concede they got here the messiest way possible — with a mix of luck in the case of Syria, years of sanctions on Iran and then some unpredicted chess moves executed by three players Mr. Obama deeply distrusts: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Iran’s erratic mullahs. But, the officials say, these are the long-delayed fruits of the administration’s selective use of coercion in a part of the world where that is understood.

“The common thread is that you don’t achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East without significant pressure,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said in late September. “In Syria, it was the serious threat of a military strike; in Iran it was a sanctions regime built up over five years.”

Skeptics — and there are plenty in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, America’s intelligence agencies and Congress — are not so optimistic. They think Mr. Obama runs the risk of being dragged into long negotiations and constant games of hide-and-seek that, ultimately, will result in little change in the status quo. They argue that the president’s hesitance to pull the trigger on Tomahawk strikes on Syria nearly two weeks ago, and the public and Congressional rebellion at the idea of even limited military strikes, were unmistakable signals to the Syrian and Iranian elites that if diplomacy fails, the chances of military action ordered by the American president are slight.

“These two situations are deeply intertwined,” said Dennis B. Ross, who served as Mr. Obama’s lead adviser on Iran for the first three years of his presidency, and who argued for attacking Syria after the Aug. 21 gas attacks that killed more than a thousand civilians. “If the Syrians are forced to give up their weapons, it will make a difference to the Iranian calculation,” and would raise the prospects of some deal with Tehran.

“If the Syrians can drag this out and give up just a little, that will send a very different message to the supreme leader,” he said.

Hovering over it all is a third negotiation: Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to jump-start talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a political minefield that Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the most part avoided.

All these possibilities could evaporate quickly; just ask the State Department diplomats who in the last years of the Bush administration thought they were on the way to keeping North Korea from adding to its nuclear arsenal, or the Clinton administration officials who thought they were on the verge of a Middle East peace deal.” (New York Times)

Meanwhile, world leaders prepare for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in the midst of the changing tides. One such leader who has caught a significant amount of attention in his diplomatic theater is recently elected, allegedly “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani of Iran. President Rouhani aimed to live up to his reputation in the weeks and days prior to the meeting when he oversaw the release of several prominent human rights activists and political prisoners and announced that he would bring Iran’s only Jewish member of parliament with him to the U.N. meeting. In late September, he wrote a Washington Post op-ed, excerpted below:

Why Iran Seeks Constructive Engagement

By President Hassan Rouhani

“Three months ago, my platform of “prudence and hope” gained a broad, popular mandate. Iranians embraced my approach to domestic and international affairs because they saw it as long overdue. I’m committed to fulfilling my promises to my people, including my pledge to engage in constructive interaction with the world.

The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

(…) We must pay attention to the complexities of the issues at hand to solve them. Enter my definition of constructive engagement. In a world where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others. A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.

Sadly, unilateralism often continues to overshadow constructive approaches. Security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences. More than a decade and two wars after 9/11, al-Qaeda and other militant extremists continue to wreak havoc. Syria, a jewel of civilization, has become the scene of heartbreaking violence, including chemical weapons attacks, which we strongly condemn. In Iraq, 10 years after the American-led invasion, dozens still lose their lives to violence every day. Afghanistan endures similar, endemic bloodshed.

(…) We and our international counterparts have spent a lot of time — perhaps too much time — discussing what we don’t want rather than what we do want. This is not unique to Iran’s international relations. In a climate where much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics, focusing on what one doesn’t want is an easy way out of difficult conundrums for many world leaders. Expressing what one does want requires more courage.

(…) As I depart for New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, I urge my counterparts to seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election. I urge them to make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue. Most of all, I urge them to look beyond the pines and be brave enough to tell me what they see — if not for their national interests, then for the sake of their legacies, and our children and future generations.”  (Washington Post)

President Rouhani’s overtures are so blatant that it immediately beds the question: “What Are the Motives Behind Iran’s ‘Charm Offensive’? as answered by to Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explain during an interview with PBS.

“KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Well, I think as you said, Gwen, this is the most significant charm offensive that Iran has launched perhaps since 1979.

It has been fairly significant. And I think the big question is whether this is merely a tactical compromise in order to stave off economic pressure and reduce sanctions, or is this a strategic shift by Iran to alter its relationship with the outside world, and particular with the United States? And I think only time will tell. We’re going to have to test that, as President Obama said.

HALEH ESFANDIARI, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: I think it’s a strategic shift.

I think that the economic hardship that the people of Iran are feeling and have been sensing for the last eight years finally resonated with the supreme leader.

(…)

A Twitter exchange between newly-appointed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and daughter of ranking House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Christine Pelosi Image source: “Iran’s Rosh Hashana Twitter Diplomacy Stirs Amazement, Disbelief,” The Back Channel, Al Monitor

A Twitter exchange between newly-appointed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and daughter of ranking House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Christine Pelosi
Image source: “Iran’s Rosh Hashana Twitter Diplomacy Stirs Amazement, Disbelief,” The Back Channel, Al Monitor

GWEN IFILL: When President Rouhani won and was installed in office, there was much discussion about how he was a moderate, a centrist. What does that mean in Iran?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, the bar of public diplomacy was set very low by the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So, as long as Rouhani comes in and doesn’t deny the Holocaust, doesn’t call for Israel to be wiped off the map, vis-a-vis Ahmadinejad, he is perceived as a moderate. But historically within Iran, he has been a constant regime insider.

But his focus has always been kind of foreign policy and national security. And I think, in that respect, he has shown himself someone who is interested in putting Iran’s national interests ahead of revolutionary, ideological interests.

And for the Obama administration, which is looking a the Middle East and almost every country seems to be unraveling, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, a lot of negative examples there, I think that Iran, ironically, is perhaps one of the few sources of hope for Obama to leave a positive diplomatic legacy.

(…)

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Anything is possible, Gwen, but we really won’t know until we test it.

I don’t doubt Rouhani’s desire to pursue a detente with the United States. I think what is in question is whether he has the authority to carry out that detente with the United States.

(…) I have to say I was someone who didn’t expect Rouhani to be allowed to be elected in the first place. And the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has looked at resistance towards America as one of the strategic pillars, ideological pillars of the Islamic republic for three decades.

Am I confident that he is prepared to abandon those pillars? I don’t think so. But I think we won’t know until we try to test it.

(…)

GWEN IFILL: Against that backdrop, Haleh Esfandiari, in 2007, you were released from being held in Iran. And you watched this prisoner release on 18 September, I suppose, with special interest. How significant is it?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I think it’s very significant.

And I felt very emotional when I saw the picture of the reunion of the young woman lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. But there were a whole list of people who were released, a former deputy foreign minister, all a group of reformists.

And I think it was very significant because it happened also on the eve of the trip of President Rouhani, who I’m sure will be asked about the other prisoners, political prisoners in Iran, including Karroubi and Mousavi and Mousavi’s wife. So at least he has something to show.

(…)

KARIM SADJADPOUR: At the moment, the U.S. and Iran are basically embroiled in a zero sum game in Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s biggest backer is Tehran, and obviously the U.S. wants Assad to go. The irony is, at the moment, as I said, they’re locked in the zero sum game.

But when and if Assad falls, there’s actually going to be an overlapping interest between Washington and Tehran and Syria, which is this mutual concerns about radical Sunni jihadists, who probably hate Shiite Iran more than they hate the United States.”

(PBS Interview)

Cautiously optimistic: the oft-repeated phrase describing expectations of the new Iranian President and the future of U.S.-Relations seems apt regarding Rouhani’s efforts at the U.N. General Assembly and its aftermath. Although there are those who are open to diplomatic solutions, especially considering reports of the White House’s hints of a possible meeting with Iran’s President, there are several inconsistencies in Iran’s newfound “moderate” façade versus the country’s track record. For example, though President Rouhani ran on a campaign of loosening restrictions to the Internet and especially certain significant social networking sites, in late September “Iranians lost unrestricted access to Facebook and Twitter almost before they knew they had it, leaving many people wondering whether the opening was deliberate or the result of some technical glitch,” as claimed by the government. The New York Times reported: “Iran Bars Social Media Again After a Day”:

“The Internet has long been a battleground in Iran between those pushing for more personal freedoms and hard-liners who feel they must protect society from dangerous influences — a struggle that may have played out on 16 September.

Image Source: “The Iranian Internet” – Digital Art by Iranian designer Maral Pourkazemi for her master thesis on the subject.

Image Source: “The Iranian Internet” – Digital Art by Iranian designer Maral Pourkazemi for her master thesis on the subject.

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has repeatedly promised an easing of Internet restrictions. He has a Twitter account, which is managed by people close to him. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has Facebook and Twitter accounts where he actively engages in debates.

Political insiders say the mysterious unblocking of Facebook and Twitter was an attempt by certain groups within the Iranian political establishment — it was not clear exactly who — to measure the reactions of Internet users.

“[The 16 September] move was a test conducted to see what people would do if Facebook and Twitter were opened,” said one source close to the new government who asked to remain anonymous because of the secrecy surrounding the matter. “Apparently the test results have been unfavorable, because the sites have been closed again.”

That was echoed by Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government. “It seems to me the authorities wanted to see what would happen if the Web sites were opened,” he said. “This is not uncommon in Iran.”

It was unclear exactly what the authorities would have been seeking to find out with such a test.

Conservatives tended to favor a technical glitch as the explanation for the unblocking of the Web sites. “God willing this has been a mistake,” Judge Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, a prominent hard-liner, told the semiofficial Mehr news agency. “But if this was done on purpose, we will confront those behind it.”

(…) But in another sign that the 16 September unblocking was a test, a well-known TV anchor, Reza Rashidpour, who campaigned for Mr. Rouhani, congratulated Iranians on 16 September for gaining unrestricted social media access but also cautioned them. “We hope our people will restrain themselves and our officials will be patient,” he said.

If indeed a test was conducted, it seemed to reveal a pent-up hunger for less restriction and more interaction. One Twitter message by this reporter — “Hello world, we are tweeting without restrictions from Iran” — was retweeted nearly 900 times, with many Twitter users welcoming Iran to Twitter and Iranians saying they could not believe what was happening.” (New York Times)

Further expounding on these political inconsistencies, Thomas Erdbrink, also in the New York Times, explained “The President’s Speech and Online Army Video Point to Iran’s Dueling Interests in Syria”:

“Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, told Revolutionary Guards commanders on 16 September that Iran would support whomever Syrians want as their leader even if it is not the country’s staunch ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.Middle-East-map2

The statement appeared part of Mr. Rouhani’s diplomatic push to present himself as more conciliatory than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose strident tone helped further isolate Iran. “Whoever Syrian citizens vote for to rule their country, we’ll agree with it,” Mr. Rouhani said, adding that the next election was scheduled for 2014.

But Mr. Rouhani’s statement came as a video surfaced online appearing to show Iranian commanders and Revolutionary Guards soldiers training and fighting alongside pro-government militias battling rebels trying to oust Mr. Assad.

Taken together, the speech and the video, if it is verified, point to the dual tracks employed by Iran as it tries to navigate the Syrian civil war and its widespread impact in the region. While calling for peace and diplomacy, Iran has also aided the government’s war effort. Although Mr. Rouhani stressed Iran’s wish for a diplomatic solution in Syria, the United States has long said Iran was supporting Mr. Assad against the rebels.

The West, Turkey and several Persian Gulf countries openly support the rebels, providing arms, humanitarian aid and cash to at least keep the rebels strong enough to continue fighting, if not actually bolster the drive to oust Mr. Assad.

The video surfaced in mid-September on a Dutch current affairs program. The show’s producer said it had been provided by rebels who said they had recovered it after the cameraman died in battle.

Restrictions on reporting in Syria prevent independent verification of the video’s provenance. There has been no official Iranian reaction to the footage.

In the video, men who appear to be Iranian commanders and soldiers are shown on patrol with Syrians, as well as engaged in firefights against rebels. The men speak in Persian with distinct regional accents.” (New York Times)

Moreover, while the discussion surrounding a potential for improvements in U.S.-Iran relations is currently centered around the President Rouhani’s actions and motives, ultimately Iranian politics is contingent upon Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Director of Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson explains this dynamic in Foreign Policy, “Stalemate’s End?”:

“The moment of truth is coming. All the optics from Tehran — even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal. If a deal can’t be made in the next few months, it’s hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.

Left to Right: President Rouhani, Sultan of Oman, (Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s picture on the wall), Ayatollah Khamenei. Image Source: “Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Endorses Diplomacy over Militarism,” Washington Post

Left to Right: President Rouhani, Sultan of Oman, (Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s picture on the wall), Ayatollah Khamenei.
Image Source:Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Endorses Diplomacy over Militarism,” Washington Post

And yet skepticism about the ability of Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, to cut a deal is certainly warranted. Iranian presidents have much less power — especially on foreign and security affairs — than the supreme leader. And yes, Khamenei’s recent public statements remain full of suspicion and enmity toward the West. But even Khamenei seems to be signaling his desire to find an end to the nuclear stalemate. On Sept. 17, in a meeting with senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, he addressed them on the question of “flexibility”: “A wrestler can even show flexibility sometimes, but he does not forget who his rival is and what his main goal is.”

Indeed, the supreme leader has been less than his usual vitriolic self when it comes to U.S. policy toward Syria. In a Sept. 11 speech, he was downright complimentary: “If [U.S. leaders] are serious about their recent outlook, this means that they have turned back from the wrong path which they have been taking during the last few weeks.”

(…) It would be a smart move by Khamenei — indeed, smarter than his usual practice — to send Rouhani out to see what kind of a nuclear deal he can get from the United States. From Khamenei’s perspective, it’s a win-win scenario: If his president can get a good deal which preserves Iran’s nuclear options, fine. If no deal is reached, Iran will still have gained many months in which its nuclear program can progress.

(…) In his Sept. 17 speech, Khamenei referred to a passage in a book he translated 40 years ago on the revered second Shiite Imam Hassan’s peace treaty with Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty a treaty the likes of which Khamenei had once vowed Iran could never be pressured into again. The treaty was entered into under great duress: Hassan agreed to it when faced with superior forces on the field of battle. Its outcome was at best mixed: The line of descent was preserved (Hassan was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed), but Hassan gave up rule over the Muslim community to Muawiyah and was years later almost certainly poisoned on Muawiyah’s orders. But speaking on Sept. 17, Khamenei took a rosier view of the seventh-century peace deal: “I agree with what I called ‘heroic flexibility’ years ago, because such an approach is very good and necessary in certain situations, as long as we stick to our main principles.”

Perhaps in this newfound respect for Hassan’s treaty, Khamenei was signaling that another Hassan — Hasan Rouhani — may need to be equally supple in the face of superior forces, even if the results are mixed.” (Foreign Policy)

syria_news_header

Security Council Returns to Role in Syria Conflict

Thrust back into a central role in resolving the Syrian conflict, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council met on 17 September to negotiate a draft resolution that would hold Syria to its pledge of identifying all chemical weapons under government control for destruction, but diplomats said major differences over a draft quickly emerged. The diplomats, who declined to be identified, said Russia, Syria’s most important ally, was resisting components of the draft, composed by the three Western permanent members — Britain, France and the United States — that discuss the threat of force to ensure Syrian compliance, whether to condemn the Syrian government for chemical weapons use and whether suspected users should be referred to the International Criminal Court for war crimes prosecutions. The discussions are unlikely to produce a quick resolution, the diplomats said, and it is unclear when a draft will be ready for a vote. Renewed momentum for Security Council action got a boost from a framework agreement reached on 14 September between the United States and Russia under which the council would review Syria’s compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the country officially agreed to join that same day. Under the framework agreement, the Syrians are expected to submit a “comprehensive listing” of all their chemical weapons supplies and facilities as a first step, with the goal of identifying and destroying the munitions by the middle of 2014. The agreement also specified that the Security Council should review Syrian compliance with the rules of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, The Hague-based group that administers the treaty. (New York Times)

Deal Represents Turn for Syria; Rebels Deflated

Both sides in Syria’s civil war see the deal to dismantle President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles as a major turning point. It left rebels deflated and government supporters jubilant. And both sides say it means the United States knows Mr. Assad is not going anywhere anytime soon. The agreement between the United States and Russia, Mr. Assad’s most powerful backer, ended weeks of tension over the possibility of an imminent American military strike. Plans for such a strike have been put aside while the diplomatic process surrounding the agreement plays out, engaging Mr. Assad’s government and infusing it with new confidence that could have immediate impact. Rebels who had hoped to capitalize on a military strike to regain momentum in the fighting are now bracing for the opposite, expecting Mr. Assad to press the battle more aggressively with conventional weapons, which they bitterly note have killed scores of times as many civilians as chemical weapons have. (…) The widespread perception in the region, though, was that every player had gained something in the past few weeks except the rebels — and, in large part, Syrian civilians, who human rights groups say have been systematically attacked by the government, and who have suffered abuses from both sides. (New York Times)

Russia Calls U.N. Chemical Report on Syria Biased

Russia sharply criticized the new United Nations report on Syria’s chemical arms use on 18 September as biased and incomplete, hardening the Kremlin’s defense of the Syrian government even while pressing ahead with a plan to disarm its arsenal of the internationally banned weapons. The Russians also escalated their critiques of Western governments’ interpretations of the report, which offered the first independent confirmation of a large chemical weapons assault on Aug. 21 on the outskirts of Syria’s capital, Damascus, that asphyxiated hundreds of civilians. Although the report did not assign blame for that assault to either side in Syria’s civil war, analyses of some of the evidence it presented point directly at elite military forces loyal to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The United States, Britain, France and human rights and nonproliferation groups also say that the report’s detailed annexes on the types of weapons used, the large volume of poison gas they carried, and their trajectories lead to the conclusion that the forces of Mr. Assad were culpable. (…) Russian news reports quoted the country’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, as saying during a visit to Damascus that Syria’s government had provided additional information that showed insurgents used chemical weapons not only on Aug. 21 but also on other occasions. The Syrians offered no such information to the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors before they left Syria with a trove of forensic samples on Aug. 31. The inspectors have said they will return to Syria to investigate other reported instances of chemical weapons use, but no dates have been announced. Mr. Ryabkov spoke after meeting with Mr. Assad and his foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem. He did not disclose the precise nature of the additional information the Syrians had conveyed to him, but he was blunt about his criticism of the report presented at the United Nations. (New York Times)

Syria’s War More Complex Than Ever as Both Sides Face Internal Divisions

The battlefields of Syria are now more complex than they have been at any point during the civil war. With plans for a second Geneva peace conference again percolating, it remains unclear who the anti-Assad opposition might send, or who they might claim to represent. Ground into what even Syria’s deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil admits is a stalemate, and lured towards an increasingly violent standoff with jihadist groups, Syria’s moderate or mainstream armed opposition have had few wins lately. Two and a half years into the war, the common ground staked out at the start is now a bitterly contested field of competing interests that seriously imperil the opposition’s reason for taking up arms in the first place. More than 1,000 units now make up the anti-Assad forces, and while many can still unite behind the stated common cause of ousting the president, many others show no such discipline or even a will to work towards a pluralistic, democratic society if, or when, the Syrian leader falls. Things are no less complex on the regime side. The standing Syrian military has been supplemented by a home defence force, the clout of Hezbollah and a large number of Shia fighters from outside Syria who have increasingly taken positions at the vanguard of the fighting. This year, northern Syria has seen a steady and significant shift in the groups lining up against the regime and in the influence that they bring to the battle. Every month since the beginning of Ramadan in July 2012, jihadist groups have increased in numbers and prominence. The regime has lost significant ground here which it is unable to retake. Jabhat al-Nusra was the standard bearer of the early days of the jihadist insurgency and by November 2012 it was either jointly leading operations with mainstream groups or taking the outright lead on many of the battles fought for the north. By early this year, its ranks had been swelled by foreign jihadists who had flocked to Syria – many of them through Turkey. The foreigners called themselves al-Muhajirin, and by March had started to form their own units in the Aleppo and Idlib countryside, as well as in the Jebel al-Krud plateau north of Latakia and in eastern Syria, where the oilfields proved attractive, as did the corridor to Anbar in Iraq, where a rejuvenated al-Qaida insurgency is again wreaking havoc. In May, the potency of Iraq’s born-again jihad made its way to Syria, with a group loyal to the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, breaking away from al-Nusra and later subsuming the group in much of the north. The new group, which calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, has taken a more hardline stance than even al-Nusra, clashing with units aligned to the Free Syrian Army and attempting to impose its will on the societies that now reluctantly host its members.

(…) Opposition attempts to make inroads into the power base have been unsuccessful. But rebels have remained firmly entrenched in the east of the city, despite repeated bombardments over many months and – according to the UN, Nato, much of Europe, the US and the Arab League – a chemical weapons attack carried out by the regime that killed more than 1,000 people. While the regime is not losing the capital, it is not winning it either. Its gains in the centre have been offset by losses in the north that have put Aleppo and the oilfields out of its reach. Despite Assad’s claims of sweeping battlefield gains, his deputy prime minister has a more realistic take on things; the civil war seems unwinnable for either side. (Guardian)

Extremists Take Syrian Town Near Turkey Border

An extremist group linked to Al Qaeda routed Syrian rebel fighters and seized control of a gateway town near Syria’s northern border with Turkey on 18 September, posting snipers on rooftops, erecting checkpoints and imposing a curfew on the local population. The takeover of the town, Azaz, by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, reflected the rising strength of extremist fighters in northern and eastern Syria and their rapidly deteriorating relations with more mainline rebels. By early 19 September, Islamist rebel leaders had intervened to stop the fighting, although most of the town appeared firmly in the hands of the extremists, opposition activists said. The extremists had not seized the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey. Azaz sits just south of the border crossing on the road to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and has served as an important artery for the rebellion in northern Syria, allowing arms, fighters and supplies to move in and refugees fleeing the violence to leave the country.

(…) The takeover also signals a new low in relations between the rebels fighting a civil war against Mr. Assad’s forces and international jihadists who have flocked to rebel-controlled areas to lay the groundwork for an Islamic state. For much of the 30-month-old conflict, the rebels welcomed jihadist fighters for the know-how and battlefield prowess they brought to the anti-Assad struggle. In recent months, however, jihadist groups have isolated local populations by imposing strict Islamic codes, carrying out public executions and clashing with rebel groups. (New York Times)

Christian Villagers Cast Doubt on Syria Jihadist ‘Threat’

The rebel attack earlier this month on the Syrian village of Maaloula heightened worries that the conflict there is becoming increasingly sectarian, with some members of the historic Christian community there fleeing and saying churches had been desecrated. However, some of the residents the BBC has spoken to have challenged this narrative. The violence in the village earlier this month centred around a pro-government checkpoint set up at the southern entrance of the village by the military, with some members from the National Defence Force, a newly-formed militia of community members, mainly Alawites and Christians. Rebel fighters say they had had control over the northern side of Maaloula, on top of the Qalamoun mountain, for the last eight months. There had been some rounds of fighting around the village in the last few months, but the world’s attention was only drawn to Maaloula on 5 September, when a fighter affiliated to the jihadist al-Nusra Front drove up to the check point and blew himself up, killing several soldiers and pro-government militiamen. A number of armed men then entered the St Takla monastery in the north of the village and asked the nuns there whether there were any government soldiers hiding there. (…) “There were around 20 of them. They looked like Islamists, but they did us no harm,” one of the nuns told the BBC a few days after the incident. “They told us they were after Bashar al-Assad and his army, not Christians,” the nun explained. Then the armed men returned to the monastery, which is home to nine nuns and 35 others, children and elderly people cared for by the nuns. They all stayed in Maaloula, even during the intense fighting. On their second visit, the nun explains, the men asked the nuns to make a video statement to the effect that they hadn’t been harmed or attacked by the rebels, which was then posted on YouTube. (…) The fighting in Maaloula is the first such attack on a notable Christian community since the start of the uprising. Residents of many Christian villages around Homs and Hama have been fleeing the violence along with members of other communities, but had not up until now been attacked themselves. Like many villages and cities across Syria, Maaloula has been home to different religious communities who have lived in coexistence for decades. Famously, it is one of three villages in Syria where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. (BBC)

Plenty of Money for Weapons in Syria, Little for Refugees

Image source: Christian Science Monitor, OXFAM

Image source: Christian Science Monitor, OXFAM

The countries arming combatants in the Syrian conflict are among the least generous with humanitarian aid donations, according to a new study by Oxfam. Throughout the conflict both Russia and Qatar have reportedly provided arms for opposing sides of the conflict – Russia to the government, Qatar to Islamist rebel factions. But international aid agency Oxfam found that the two have committed just 3 percent each of their fair share to humanitarian appeals for Syria, measured as a proportion of national income and overall wealth. (…) “The Syrian crisis has reached epic proportions but the international humanitarian response is a far cry from what is needed. We see in our daily work the desperate needs of Syrians and Palestinians fleeing from the conflict, living in refugee camps or scattered in the host communities of neighboring countries,” said Oxfam’s Karl Schembri. Oxfam has been experiencing funding problems of its own. The group is seeking to raise $48.9 million for health and sanitation programs in Syria’s neighbors, where more than 2 million refugees have fled, but the appeal remains less than 40 percent funded. Meanwhile, the UN’s much larger Syria appeal has received less than half of its $5 billion target. (…) “There are millions in need of aid inside Syria whom we can’t reach, and thousands living outside refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan whose savings have dried up and cannot afford to pay rent. By the end of the year we expect half of the population of Syria to be in need of aid,” said Oxfam. (Christian Science Monitor)

Syria’s Rebels: 20 Things You Need to Know

Big questions loom over the debate on whether the United States should strike Syria: Who are the Syrian rebels? Should the United States and other countries help them? The first thing to know is that the rebels aren’t all playing on the same team. They’re arrayed against the Syrian government in a constellation of groups and factions, each with its own agenda. Some are in league with al Qaeda. Secondly, the opposition has morphed in the last few years. It started with ordinary Syrians angry at police for arresting children who painted anti-government graffiti. Now it attracts fighters from outside Syria. What else should you know about the rebels in Syria? A lot. Here are 20 points to get you up to speed, based on CNN’s reporting since the Syrian crisis began in 2011. (CNN)

Turkish Warplanes Shoot Down Syrian Helicopter

Turkey said its warplanes shot down a Syrian helicopter on 16 September after it crossed into Turkish airspace and the government warned it had taken all necessary measures to defend itself against any further such violations. Turkey scrambled two F-16 jets along the border between its southern Hatay province and Syria after warning the Mi-17 helicopter it was approaching Turkish airspace on 16 September the military said in a statement. Syria called the reaction “hasty” and accused Turkey of trying to escalate tensions along the border. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said a warplane shot down the helicopter after it ventured up to 2 km (1 miles) into Turkey near the border town of Yayladagi. “It was repeatedly warned by our air defense elements,” he said. It came down in a ball of flames inside Syrian territory after being hit, amateur video footage showed. “Turkey will definitely not allow any violation of its borders … We will defend our borders and our people’s security to the end,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Paris. “No one will have the nerve to violate Turkey’s borders in any way again,” he said after a meeting to discuss Syria with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and their French counterpart Laurent Fabius. Davutoglu said details of the incident would be provided to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council and fellow members of the NATO military alliance. Syria’s army acknowledged the helicopter had strayed into Turkish airspace for a short time while monitoring “terrorists” moving across the border into Syria, but said it was an accident and that the aircraft was on its way back when it was shot down. In a statement carried by state news agency SANA, it accused Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government of trying to increase tensions between the two countries. (Reuters)

Syrian War, Refugees to Cost Lebanon $7.5 Billion, World Bank

Syria’s conflict will cost Lebanon $7.5 billion in cumulative economic losses by the end of next year, the World Bank has said in a report prepared for an aid meeting at the United Nations. A summary of the report, seen by Reuters after the World Bank briefed diplomats in Beirut, provides the most detailed assessment yet of the strain Syria’s conflict has placed on its small Mediterranean neighbour. It estimates that the war and resulting wave of refugees into Lebanon will cut real GDP growth by 2.85 percent a year between 2012 to 2014, double unemployment to above 20 percent and widen the deeply indebted nation’s deficit by $2.6 billion. U.S. ambassador to Lebanon David Hale said on 19 September the bank’s assessment underscored just how serious a challenge Lebanon faces, and the importance of dealing with it “not only for humanitarian reasons, but for Lebanon’s very stability”. The Syrian war has spilled into Lebanon with car bombs in Beirut and Tripoli, street fighting in major cities and rocket fire in the Bekaa Valley. Political paralysis has exacerbated the instability which has hit tourism, trade and investment. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to convene an international support group for Lebanon at the United Nations annual summit meeting next week to provide humanitarian aid and development assistance and strengthen Lebanon’s armed forces. (Reuters)

Syrian Christians in Limbo, Fearing Repeat of Iraq

Syria’s Christians dread the upsurge of radical Islamic fundamentalism among rebels battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad, concerned that the Syrian civil war could spell the doom of Christianity in their country. But some critics say Christian leaders made a fatal error in siding against the rebellion. From the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have lived and worshipped in Syria. But the two-and-a-half year civil war has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, and Christians worry there will be an even greater exodus. Their biggest concern is an eventual rebel victory. They point to what happened in neighboring Iraq where sectarian killings, persecution of Christians and an increasingly Islamist political culture, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, forced more than half of the Iraqi Christian population to flee. Jihadists and hardline Islamists among the rebels have targeted Christians in rebel-held areas. Many of the Christian refugees arriving in Lebanon are traumatized, said Najla Chahda of the Catholic relief agency. “A lot of them are sharing with us some really horrible stories that some fundamentalists approached them, forced them to pay some rent, or amount of money that they don’t have,” Chahda said. “So they are just afraid and left.” Stories have included forced conversion to Islam and churches being desecrated in this vicious sectarian conflict. Several clergy have been abducted, including two bishops, and in villages in Homs province Christians have been forced from their homes and farms. The attacks and kidnappings have increased Christian dread of what would happen if the rebels win.  This fear is helping the Assad regime, made up mostly of Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam, to retain the support of many Christians.  Most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims. (Voice of America)

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