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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

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Syrian safe zones: A planning nightmare

This is the first in what will be a regular weekly post from the Lowy Institute’s West Asia program to bring Interpreter readers up to speed with the latest issues in the Middle East.

The Syrian safe zone concept is getting less clear by the day.  In January President Trump said that he 'would absolutely do safe zones' in Syria. Little has been heard since, but Secretary of State Tillerson told the 68-nation anti-Islamic State coalition meeting held in Washington last week that the United States would set up 'interim zones of stability' through ceasefires so that refugees could return home.

While there are few details to discuss, the subtlety of language may be telling. On the face of it, 'interim stability' appears to set the bar somewhat lower than 'safe' and hence require fewer resources. The concept of stability being gained through local ceasefires is also something new, raising the obvious question of who these ceasefires are going to be negotiated with. It may be possible to do this with the US-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in areas in north-eastern Syria. However, not only is it questionable as to how the US will be able to broker local ceasefires – either with or without the SDF – but these areas contain only a relatively small portion of the Syrian population and as such won't do much to alleviate the regional refugee issue.

The more heavily populated areas are either under Syrian government or Islamist opposition control and they are hardly going to be parties to ceasefires that aren't to their advantage. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavro has said that while Russia was not privy to any details, it was open to the concept – as long as it were approved by the Syrian government. The Syrian government, for its part, has called the concept of such zones as a violation of national sovereignty. And then there is Turkey, whose president has previously been an advocate of no-fly and safe zones providing their location fulfilled Ankara's Syrian policy goals. Top of that list was toppling Assad. Now that's failed, the priority is to stop the creation of a de facto Kurdish area of influence on its border.

It may well be that the interim stability zones are not contiguous and rely on both SDF and Turkish, or pro-Turkish, militia-brokered (and enforced) ceasefires. The US planners involved still have some very tricky questions to answer including: exactly what the aim of such zone(s) will be; their legal basis; how and by whom they will be administered; and what their relationship will be with the Syrian government in Damascus - and its Russian and Iranian allies - as well as with the various non-IS Islamist opposition groups. I wish them luck.

Muddying the Syrian waters

The number of US boots on the ground in Syria is gradually increasing without, it would appear, a plan to inform the public about what broader purpose the troops' presence serves and, perhaps most importantly, what defines mission success and would allow the troops to redeploy.

Before leaving office, President Obama authorised around 500 Special Forces personnel to work inside Syria as support and enabling personnel for the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against Islamic State. Now, as the SDF closes in on Raqqa, the need for more conventional combat support capabilities not possessed by Special Forces increases. Consequently we have seen the recent deployment to Syria of part of a US Marine Corps M777 155mm battery. This deployment is likely to provide the all-weather, guaranteed fire support that close air support cannot, and the weight, range and accuracy of fire that mortars lack. But land forces come with overheads, so a ground security force and logistics tail (155mm ammunition is bulky and a lot may be required if supporting a ground assault on a significant population centre) are also required. The M777 is also towed (and air portable), so it’s likely that these forces will be operating from a fire support base rather than moving to support the flow of battle. The M777 is capable of firing GPS- and laser-guided munitions but it’s unknown what the holdings currently are. The US has access to at least one airbase in Kurdish-controlled NE Syria so force and logistics flows are manageable.

Elsewhere the US has deployed elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Stryker vehicles and Humvees in an emphatic show of force around the town of Manbij. This very public deployment has garnered a lot of attention but, for the moment, it is a distraction to the main event which remains the re-taking of Raqqa and eventual defeat of Islamic State. There is great potential for conflict in the increasingly crowded battle space in northern Syria. Islamic State has been squeezed from the north by Turkish and Turkish-supported forces, from the east by US-supported Kurds and from the southwest by Syrian and Syrian-allied forces. The result is a train smash of competing groups - supported by external states with often diverging interests - whose claimed territory abuts each other’s. The advance of Syrian and Kurdish forces has blocked the movement further south of Turkish and Turkish-supported forces, a move that neither the US nor Russia views as being in anyone's best interests. The presence of some Russian and US forces among the Kurdish and pro-Syrian regime forces is  designed to dissuade Ankara from thinking that it can become too big a player in Syria.

Some clashes between forces have already occurred. A Russian air strike killed three Turkish soldiers last month and the Syrian government has accused Ankara of killing regime forces after firing artillery missions at their positions. With the Syrian government calling on Turkey to withdraw from Syrian territory, and the Turkish foreign minister warning Russia not to side with the YPG, the recent meeting in Antalya between senior military commanders from Russia, Turkey and the United States shows how seriously the deconfliction is being taken.

As complex as the situation around Manbij is, there are other, equally complex, questions facing the Trump Administration as it seeks to put flesh on the bones of its ‘defeat IS’ and ‘establish safe zones’ strategy.  The CENTCOM commander’s rather cryptic statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee - ‘I think as we move towards the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and other aspects of the operations, we will see more conventional forces requirements’ - has certainly raised the option of additional forces in the future. The talk of stability options, however, hints at a much longer commitment in Syria than an intent to ‘defeat IS’ would require. Little has been said of the plan for safe zones in Syria, other than a claim from Trump that they would be paid for by the Gulf states.

Meanwhile Turkey continues to complain about Washington's selection of the Kurds as a strategic partner in Syria but there is little the Turks can do about this at the moment; they are boxed-in around Manbij and are hostage to decisions made by others. For their part, the Kurds are nothing if not pragmatic, and if you’re looking for a long-term partner then in Syria you can pretty well guarantee that Washington can’t and won’t fulfill that role.  Turkey considers the YPG to be  terrorists and there is no stomach internationally for Kurdish independence in Syria or elsewhere. While there is not much love lost officially between the YPG/SDF and Damascus, Kurds can do their own political calculations and, faced with choosing between Ankara, Washington and Damascus, their choice will be clear, albeit unpalatable. Damascus needs the Kurds and the Kurds will be in a strong bargaining position to re-orient their relationship with the capital, so it is not a leap of logic to see some long-term modus vivendi struck between the Kurds and the regime that would give the Kurds a mutually acceptable degree of autonomy under the Syrian flag. 

The race for Raqqa

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is in the process of briefing his draft plan for defeating Islamic State, and is allegedly taking a global strategic perspective. This is only appropriate but, before the strategic can be addressed, the tactical must be planned. And now that Mosul is in the process of being returned to Iraqi government control, all eyes are on Raqqa as the next (and possibly last) major urban centre in the Levant fully under control of IS. There are two immediate military-diplomatic challenges involved in the defeat of IS in eastern Syria: who should be the assaulting force and who should be the governing force.

The first of these appears the clearest cut. Washington scrambled for a long time to find a partner whom it could trust on the ground in Syria. It eventually decided to limit its aspirations regarding partnering and concentrated on the Kurdish YPG in the northeast for the group's combat effectiveness, religious moderation, and willingness to focus on IS for the short term. The YPG was embedded within a broader grouping with the appealingly secular and inclusive name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  In reality though, the SDF is largely Kurdish: the US Special Operations Commander told a Senate hearing last year the SDF was around 80% Kurdish.  

The push into Raqqa has been underway since November last year, but Turkey has never been comfortable with the role of the Kurds in establishing a semi-autonomous zone in northern Syria abutting the Turkish border. This article by one of Obama’s deputy secretaries of state gives a feel for the complex considerations Washington has had (and will have) to consider in balancing Turkish interests and Kurdish realities around Raqqa. There are already reports of Turkish concerns about US reliance on the SDF, but the idea of using Turkish-backed forces appears impractical and appeals to no one other than the Turks.    

The overtly Kurdish nature of the SDF is recognised by Washington and there are moves afoot to give it a more Arab face. Obama’s Syria envoy Brett McGurk had previously claimed that the vanguard force to liberate Raqqa would come from Arab forces, reflecting the ethnicity of Raqqa itself. But in the rush to Arabise the Raqqa force, it is likely the US will end up supporting a range of groups who claim a level of support they may not have, or who have ties with regional states who may not share Washington’s long-term aims.This interview with Ahmed Jarba, the very pro-Saudi former Syrian opposition leader is a good example.    

But the most difficult aspect of the Raqqa operation is not the seizure of the city but the post-seizure governance. Late last year Washington said it was working with Turkey to develop a plan for Raqqa’s governance. No such plan has been enunciated, and with clashes between pro-Turkish and Kurdish Syrian rebel groups occurring regularly, the ability of Turkey to support groups as far south as Raqqa is open to question. As is Washington’s willingness to provide support for any governing body who takes over Raqqa in defiance of the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies. Assad has stated that he wishes to reassert control over all of Syria, but that Raqqa is not a priority. He would be satisfied if someone else’s blood and treasure was expended in rescuing Raqqa from IS, while he and his allies sought to cut a deal with groups such as the Kurds, who likely understand that their future autonomy - or something that passes for it - is best negotiated with Damascus (with whom it shares long-term interests) rather than with Washington or Ankara (with whom it doesn’t).  And, if the SDF gets unrestricted access to heavy weapons courtesy of Washington, it will be in an even stronger bargaining position.

While the complexities of the battle for Raqqa are plain to see, to the southeast lies Deir az-Zour where IS retains a large presence and vies for control with the Syrian military. If the political complexities surrounding the defeat of IS in Raqqa are this great, and it is devoid of Syrian military forces, imagine the difficulties that lie ahead in planning what to do in Deir az-Zour, where any anti-IS military actions supported by Washington will directly assist Assad’s forces.

What exactly did the rebel defence of east Aleppo achieve?

As Aleppo falls and a last-minute evacuation and cease-fire is implemented, there is the familiar cry in the global community that we (read: the West) have abandoned the civilians in east Aleppo to brutal Russian and Syrian forces intent on eradicating them. In October the Qatari foreign minister even penned a piece in The New York Times calling for foreign military intervention to save the innocent civilians – somewhat ironic given Qatar’s rather duplicitous role in bankrolling a number of Islamist or Salafist groups involved in Syria and elsewhere.

It’s true that many civilians have died and will die in Aleppo at the hands of the Assad regime. The wide use of area weapons inside populated areas contravenes international humanitarian law, and there are reports (unverified and in many cases from pro-opposition outlets) that extra-judicial killings have been carried out. All horrible.

But it is also fair to focus on the armed groups in east Aleppo, and why they appeared willing to fight to the last Syrian civilian, even after their fate was sealed. East Aleppo was going to fall, but the armed groups ensured that more of it was destroyed and more civilians within it were killed than ever needed to be the case.

It's difficult for the world's media to provide balanced reporting from confusing conflict zones, and it's both easy and tempting to portray the issue as a binary problem. In the case of Aleppo, for all intents and purposes the media portrayed the conflict as one of the Assad regime and its allies pounding civilians in east Aleppo into submission. 

But Aleppo and the broader Syrian conflict is not a binary issue; it has never really ever been one. The media tend to airbrush away the armed groups and focus on civilians being deliberately or inadvertently targeted by regime forces.

To do this is understandable – most journalists have neither military operational knowledge nor experience, or a deep understanding of jihadist groups. They have no access to intelligence information. Armed groups have a narrative that they want to dominate the media cycle, and this does not involve revealing their political or religious orientation, financial backers, or strategic intent. They want to focus on civilians. Thus a focus on human interest stories is understandable. But it is also lazy journalism. The media paints a picture of the attackers, and uncovers harrowing stories of civilians inside besieged areas, but downplays the role of these armed groups.

Where, for instance, are stories that attempt to get a picture of the armed groups operating inside Aleppo proper, reports that tell what their affiliations are, why they have deployed within and among civilians in contravention of international humanitarian law, and, perhaps most importantly, what military objective did they think they were going to achieve by continuing to fight after the encirclement had been completed? The regime’s tactics are clear and what they have done in Aleppo is the same as in Homs, Daraya and other locations: encircle populated locations held by armed opposition groups; bring sufficient combat power to bear over an extended period of time; and then negotiate for the fighters and their families to leave.

Knowing this, surely it was apparent from the time the encirclement was completed and the attempt to break the siege failed that only one outcome was possible: the defeat of the armed groups inside east Aleppo. Knowing that continuing to fight amongst the civilian population would only lead to more civilian deaths, and that the Syrian forces would not stop until they had pressed home their military advantage, why didn’t the world’s media shift some focus onto the armed groups inside Aleppo and ask what they were achieving by being there? A media campaign that focused on the futility of fighting on, asked tough questions of the armed groups and their foreign backers, and called for the fighters to negotiate surrender and safe passage under UN auspices may well have achieved something. It may have helped to save civilian lives.

Rather than parrot opposition groups’ social media claims and despair at the West’s unwillingness to intervene militarily to save civilian lives, in situations as hopeless as Aleppo the media may be better served by holding a spotlight on the armed groups. The media could continue to criticise the Syrian regime’s military onslaught, but if the aim is to save civilian lives it is only fair to ask why the armed groups seemed intent on fighting to the last civilian in Aleppo.

'First we take Aleppo, then we take Idlib'

The gradual isolation and strangulation of Aleppo is part of a much broader strategy that has taken shape over the past year, albeit in the case of Aleppo on a much different scale. The actions follow a familiar pattern: encirclement; cutting off military and life support functions; limited direct military engagement in favour of stand-off weapons to wear down the enemy and punish the civilian population housing them (whether reluctantly or otherwise); then a negotiated exit for fighters (with small arms although no heavy weapons) and their families, as well as unattached civilians. In August this year, when the town of Daraya capitulated, 700 fighters were moved to Idlib and 4000 civilians went elsewhere. In October around 1800 people (including 700 fighters) were removed from Mouadamiya, again to Idlib. This followed the evacuation of two towns to the north of Damascus earlier in October which resulted in 400 fighters and 1600 dependents moving to northern Syria.

These were all supporting lines of operation to the siege of Aleppo. The Assad regime seeks to re-establish control over Syria but knows it can’t generate enough combat power on its own to do so. However, if it demonstrates an inexorable momentum in re-establishing control over the most populated areas (including re-taking Aleppo) then it may well believe that it can cut deals in those areas it can’t reach in numbers. And if it can bottle up as many of the remaining fighters in Idlib as possible, they can be portrayed as either violent jihadis such as the al-Qa’ida-aligned Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or groups supportive of them. Once they have been isolated in and around Idlib, the Syrian government narrative will focus on the threat posed by terrorist groups and the government's success in corralling them into the one province. The coalition can target the Islamic State terrorists in the east, while the regime does the same to the terrorists in the west.

This narrative will no doubt be presented vigorously and (as with all strong narratives) it will have a foundation in fact. The Coalition has been deploying air assets against radical Islamist targets in Idlib since late 2014, and most recently against a senior al–Qa‘ida cleric in Idlib in October this year. The Syrian regime will also no doubt feel that the more these groups are isolated in one area, where they are subject to air and ground attack, the more likely it will be that their lack of unity will come to the fore. There were instances of internecine conflict in Aleppo and, earlier this year, conflict between al-Nusra and non-Islamist groups in Idlib province. Contrary to the view in some quarters that fighting the common enemy may unify the rebel groups, their lack of unity has been one of the common themes of the civil war; Assad’s regime will not miss a chance to use the government’s momentum to maintain pressure in the hope that it can divide them and weaken their resistance from within.

There is unlikely to be any rush to take Idlib, however. A festering concentration of al-Qa‘ida aligned jihadis, Salafist and Islamist fighters and nationalist groups in the one province will suit Damascus’ purposes. And while Assad works out how to cut deals with Syrian Kurdish groups in the northeast and tribal groups in the east after Islamic State has collapsed, fixing as many armed elements as he can in Idlib will allow him to better concentrate his forces and maintain a coherent narrative for the outside world’s consumption. It will also provide yet another dilemma for the new Trump administration in Syria. Perhaps Damascus even views concentrating Islamist groups within Idlib as an argument Trump could use to present Assad as a force for stability. The battle for Aleppo has been widely covered, but it will be interesting to see how the world’s media explains the future conflict in Idlib and whose narrative ultimately dominates.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

Quick comment: Rodger Shanahan on Neil Prakash

We are learning more about the arrest of the Australian terrorist, Neil Prakash, in Turkey late last week. Writing in The Australian yesterday, Paul Maley revealed the Australian Federal Police anticipated Prakash would try to cross from Syria into Turkey and were on hand in Ankara to help confirm his identity after initial questioning by the Turkish National Police. It seems increasingly likely that Australia will seek to extradite Prakash so he can stand trial in Victoria, where he is charged with membership of a terrorist group and foreign incursion. In this quick comment recorded earlier this week, the Lowy Institute's Rodger Shanahan reviews what we know about Neil Prakash, and considers the likely consequences of extradition.

Photo: Getty Images/Chris McGrath

Quick comment: Rodger Shanahan on why rebel forces should leave Aleppo

It's time for the international community to put pressure on rebel forces to leave Aleppo, says Lowy Institute Research Fellow Rodger Shanahan. As Syrian government forces and allies gain ground in the battle for Syria's largest city, more than 250,000 civilians are under siege in the remaining rebel-held territory. Now the tide is turning in favour of the pro-government forces, it's clear efforts by the rebel forces to break the siege have failed. The rebels' continued presence, embedded among civilians, is therefore serving no military purpose but is prompting Russian and Syrian government to pummel the city, Dr Shanahan says.

Photo by Mamun Ebu Omer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A very Lebanese presidency

Whenever I think the Australian political scene has plumbed new depths of hopelessness I can always be reassured that at least we haven’t reached the level of bloody-mindedness and self-centredness that marks out Lebanese politics. After 29 months without a president, a parliamentary vote this week finally delivered one in the form of Michel Aoun.

Aoun was unable to garner the necessary two-thirds majority to gain the position in the first round. This was a calculated insult to Aoun and an indication that not all were happy with the accommodation made to hand him the presidency and give the prime ministership to Saad Hariri once again. 

One MP (unfortunately it’s a secret ballot) even cast a vote for the provocative Lebanese-Serbian model Myriam Klink. The president doesn’t have to be an MP, only a Lebanese citizen and over 21 years of age, so she would have been eligible. Myriam has dabbled with the thought of politics, promising to run for office in 2013 but then failing to lodge the necessary paperwork in a dramatic, made-for-reality-TV moment. However, given that she is an Orthodox Christian and the presidency is reserved by convention for a Maronite, the vote was ruled invalid. Another vote for Zorba the Greek was also ruled invalid because he was, after all, Greek.

In the second round of voting only a simple majority (65 votes) was required, but somewhat embarrassingly the counting turned up 128 votes despite there being only 127 MPs present. Voting irregularities aren’t anything new to Lebanese politics so people could forgive a simple error, but an unprecedented third attempt again delivered 128 ballots. An even more unprecedented fourth round was required, where MPs individually had to vote under the watchful eyes of two other MPs; this time it delivered a result.

So Lebanon now has a president who spent 15 years in exile in France after making his name as the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces in a destructive, ultimately quixotic battle against Syrian forces near the end of the Lebanese civil war. Styling himself as the ultimate Lebanese nationalist, he made up with Syria, founded his own political movement and allied himself with Hizbullah in order to gain the presidency. The compromise Aoun made to install Sa’ad Hariri as the new prime minister favours Iranian interests over Saudi ones (Riyadh had backed an alternative candidate).

The deals Aoun has made to secure the presidency will mean that while the political vacuum has been filled, it will be politics as usual in Lebanon. At least the system was robust enough to stop Zorba the Greek from becoming president.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

Michael Keenan on the evolving terrorist threat in Australia

On 26 October, Justice Minister the Hon Michael Keenan MP addressed the Lowy Institute on the evolving terrorist threat to Australia. Mr Keenan’s role within the government is to lead the Commonwealth’s efforts to counter violent extremism and to ensure effective and integrated implementation of Australia’s counterterrorism strategy. He is the primary contact for the Prime Minister for both day-to-day counterterrorism matters and in a terrorism crisis.


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