As the US media contemplates the minutiae of past and present crimes of our ruling family, Don Culo e la sua famiglia, its consigliere, Don Michael Cohen, and various capos -- Kushner, Pruit, Manafort, etc., and even some Russian oligarchs, miscellaneous Israelis and others involved in Don Culo's public-private/win-win deals for himself and his family, the world rolls on. -- blj
The Syria connection to Iran, Afghanistan and China
By Pepe Escobar
From Asia Times
Iranian academic spells out Iran's position in the Middle East and questions US policy toward the region; amid reports that the Qods force is unlikely to disband, and that Daesh (ISIS) is being moved the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
A crucial question has been consuming policymakers in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon: Does the Trump administration have a strategic plan for the Middle East or not?
Few are more apt to answer than Saadallah Zarei, dean of the Institute of Strategic StudiesAndishe Sazan-e Noor in Tehran. Zarei, a soft-spoken, extremely discreet man I met in Mashhad a few days ago, happens to be not only one of Iran's top strategic analysts but also a key brain behind the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Qods Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani -- the ultimate bête noire outside the Beltway.
So, US strategists could do worse than paying attention to Zarei.
While the US "owns 37 fixed military bases and almost 70 movable bases in the Middle East," Zarei said, "We do not observe specific and exact strategies."
He stressed his perplexity with "contradictory behavior related to the Shi'ite population. America's behavior in terms of the Shi'ite population of Bahrain and their rights, the Zaydi Shi'ite population in Yemen and Kashmir and also the Shi'ite population in Lebanon, which is 35% of the total population, is not specified and nobody knows how the Americans think about Shi'ites and how they act."
Zarei also notes that "America does not have a specific policy about the democracies of Turkey and Iran. There is not any specific strategy about democracy in Iraq and Lebanon too. America talks about democracy as an American value and tries to generalize it, but in this region, we see that the best friends of the US are countries where there is no election in their political systems."
The bottom line, according to Zarei, is that "the US strategy is not coherent in the Middle East. I think this is the main reason for the failure of American policies in this region."
Enter the Hazaras
Now zoom in from the macro-analysis to the micro-view on the ground. Compare Zarei to Komeil, a 24-year-old Hazara Shi'ite from Kabul. Komeil is one among as many as 14,000 soldiers, all Hazara Afghans, carrying an Afghan passport, which made up the Liwa Fatemiyoun brigade fighting in Syria. We met in Mashhad, where he is spending Ramadan, before going back to the frontlines next month.
One of the key founders of Fatemiyoun, in 2013, was Abu Ahmad, killed by a missile, of unknown origin, near the Golan Heights, in 2015. At first, the brigade was a religious organization set up "to defend Shi'ite holy shrines in Syria" or, as Komeil prefers to stress, "defend humanity, weak people."
No Fatemiyoun fighters carry Iranian passports -- even though some, like Komeil, do live in eastern Iran; he's been in Mashhad since 2011. Almost all of them are volunteers; Komeil followed "friends" who joined the brigade. He undertook military training in Bagram airbase when he was part of the Afghan Army.
Komeil told me he engaged in direct combat with an assortment of Salafi-jihadis -- from Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra to smaller outfits that were part of the vast, rambling Free Syrian Army umbrella. He's been on the frontlines non-stop for three years, fighting mostly in "Sham and Zenaybi" near Damascus, and was also present at the liberation of Aleppo.
He described Daesh jihadis as "very difficult" in battle. He says he saw Daesh fighters wearing "American clothes" and carrying American-made rifles. Captured prisoners had "food from Saudi Arabia and Qatar." He personally captured a "French lady working with Daesh" but did not know what happened to her, saying only that "Commanders treat our prisoners well." He swears "less than 10%" of Daesh jihadis are Syrians -- "There are Saudis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pakistanis, English, French and Germans."
In contrast to the propaganda barrage across the Beltway, Komeil is adamant there are no Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military commanders active with Fatemiyoun, and no Hezbollah. They fight "side by side" -- and the Iranians are essentially military advisers. He depicted Fatemiyoun as a totally independent outfit. This would indicate their military training was mostly acquired as members of the Afghan Army, and not via the IRGC.
Komeil said the fabled Qods Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani did visit the group, but "only once". Each force is responsible for its own area of operations; Fatimiyoun; Hezbollah; the Syria Arab Army (SAA); the Pakistanis ("strong fighters"); the al-Defae-Watan, which he portrayed as an equivalent of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi (also known as the "People Mobilization Units"); and the Medariyoun also from Iraq.
The "Shi'ite crescent," revisited
The Obama administration admitted at least that Iranian military advisers, alongside Russia air power and Hezbollah fighters, helped the SAA to defeat Daesh and other Salafi-jihadi outfits in Syria.
But, for the Trump administration -- in sync with Israel and Saudi Arabia -- it's all black and white; all forces under Iranian command have to leave Syria (and that would include Fatemiyoun). That's not going to happen; the virtual total collapse of what is loosely defined in the Beltway as "moderate rebels" -- al-Qaeda in Syria included -- yielded a power vacuum duly occupied by Damascus. And Damascus still needs all these forces to extinguish Salafi-jihadism for good.
Iran exerts influence throughout an arc from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As Zarei analyzed: "The Islamic Republic of Iran has a specific strategy in the region. We have specific principles, friends, and capabilities. In addition, we have a coherent understanding of our enemy and we know where should we stand in the next 20 years. Therefore, we try to use our capabilities carefully and manage the job gradually."
This has nothing to do with a threatening "Shi'ite crescent," as suggested by Jordan's King Abdullah way back in 2004. It's been essentially a slow-motion Iranian countercoup against the US non-strategy across Southwest Asia since "Shock and Awe" in 2003 -- as Zarei identified it.
The Qods Force -- formed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s -- is the extraterritorial extension of the IRGC. I talked to quite a few war veterans in Karaj, where they gather in an association set up in a replica bunker serving delicious osh soup -- a Persian equivalent of Tuscan pasta and fagioli -- after meetings. Commander Syed Mohammad Yayavi said there is no way the Trump administration's demand, expressed by Secretary of State Pompeo, for Iran to dismantle the Qods Force, will ever be accepted.
The Qods Force could be described as an equivalent of the US Special Forces and CIA special ops all rolled into one. For Washington, that's a terror organization. Yet in practice, the Qods Force is as much an arm of Iranian national security policy across Southwest Asia as the Pentagon and CIA enforcing US national security interests all around the world.
And there's remarkable continuity. At the "bunker" in Karaj I talked to Mohammad Nejad, a retired Iranian Air Force colonel who acquired his Iran-Iraq battle experience when he was in his mid-twenties, fighting in Bushher. Two years ago he was back in Syria for two months, serving as a military adviser.
All eyes on the SCO
The incoherent US strategy in the Middle East described by Zarei also applies to Afghanistan. Another demand by the Trump administration is that Tehran must stop supporting the Taliban.
Facts on the ground are infinitely more nuanced. The endless US war in Afghanistan has generated millions of refugees; many of them live in Iran. In parallel, Washington has set up a permanent network of Afghan military bases -- which Tehran identifies as a serious threat, capable of supporting covert ops inside Iran.
So what happens is that Tehran, with minimal means -- and in tandem with intelligence services from Pakistan and Russia -- does support small groups in western Afghanistan, around Herat, including some that are loosely linked with the Taliban.
But that fits into a much larger Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) strategy. SCO members Russia, China and Pakistan, as well as future member Iran, not to mention future member Afghanistan, all want an Asian, SCO-driven solution for the Afghan tragedy. And that must include a place for the Taliban in the government in Kabul.
Now compare that with the avowed Trump administration ploy geared to provoke regime change in Tehran. Saudi Arabia is already on it. Riyadh, via a think tank allegedly supported by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, has been funding a string of hardcore anti-Shi'ite madrassas in Balochistan in Pakistan, which borders Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran.
The Saudi plan is to at least disrupt the emergence of Chabahar port, which happens to be the entry point of India's own New Silk Road to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. BRICS member India, alongside Russia and China, won't be exactly pleased; and India is also a new SCO member, and absolutely adverse to all forms of Salafi-jihadism.
Adding even more trouble to this heady mix, the Attorney General for Pakistan, Ashtar Ausaf Ali, on a visit to Iran, received a warning that Daesh "is being moved" to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Who's doing the moving is unclear. What's certain is that ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K -- that is, Daesh's Afghan branch -- is actually fighting the Taliban.
Coincidentally, US airpower is also fighting the Taliban, via Operation Freedom's Sentinel. One report detailed how "the number of US weapons released in support of Freedom's Sentinel increased to 562 in April, the highest monthly total of 2018 and the second highest total for any month since October 2011."
So, it's the Taliban that are getting heavily bombed, not ISIS-K. No wonder SCO nations are on red alert. The real mystery is still to be unlocked by Pakistani intelligence: that is, in what part of the porous Af-Pak border are over 4,000 well-weaponized ISIS-K jihadis being lodged?
Who will rebuild Syria?
And that leads us to the ultimate inter-connector: China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Syrian colleague Walid Muallem have a very close relationship. President Xi Jinping is a firm supporter of the Astana peace process featuring Russia, Iran and Turkey. China announced last November that it would deploy special forces to Syria against all strands of Salafi-jihadism; the Chinese goal is to "neutralize" 5,000 Uyghur fighters who have acted as "moderate rebels," because of concern about militants causing violence if they return to Xinjiang.
But most of all, China will be deeply involved in Syrian reconstruction; towns, villages, roads, railways, bridges, schools, hospitals, all connectivity networks. Syria will be rebuilt by China, Russia (energy, infrastructure) and Iran (power grids), not the US or the Gulf petro-monarchies. US and EU sanctions are still in effect, banning commercial operations both in US dollars and euros.
This coincides with a meeting in Beijing last week of SCO security council chiefs. Politburo heavyweight Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, discussed matters extensively with top Russian security expert Nikolai Patrushev.
The 18th SCO summit will be held in Qingdao on June 9. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be there. India and Pakistan will be there. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani will be there, representing Iran as an observer, and will meet face to face with Putin and Xi. That's where all Syria-Afghanistan connections will converge.
In the Middle East Putin has a lot to thank Trump for right now
Vladimir Putin will have paid very close attention to the location of the Syrian artillery battery where four Russian soldiers lost their lives at the weekend. The desert around Deir ez-Zour remains a dangerous place – politically as well as physically – in which the Americans and Russians play an extremely risky game of war.
Putin still suspects the Americans helped the artillery guidance of a mortar battery which killed the commander of the Russian Far East 5th Army in Deir ez-Zour, lieutenant general Valery Asapov, less than a year ago. Was the mortar fired by pro-American Kurdish fighters? Or by Isis? The Russians say that Isis mobile attackers stormed the Syrian artillery position this weekend at night – the Islamists’ normal routine, streaming out of the desert wadis in suicide trucks and motorcycles – even though the little Syrian forts, hillocks of sand and cement strewn across the vast sand plateaus, are supposed to be invulnerable.
Russians are directing artillery. First they were the air component to the Syrian army, their forward air observers on the ground with Syrian troops directing the Sukhois onto Assad’s enemies. Then the Russians were the de-miners of Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour, Homs and Aleppo. Then the Russian military police escorted the beaten jihadists to the wastelands of Idlib province or the Turkish border. The Russians liaise between the Syrians and the pro-American Kurds on the Euphrates River.
Twelve months ago, Putin’s top artillery technicians were searching through the rubble of eastern Aleppo to draw up painstaking maps of the fall of shot – the exact bomb crater and blast effects of air-dropped Russian munitions. I met one of their teams. Its reports were circulated, of course, to Russian military intelligence. But they first go directly to the Kremlin.
Putin reads them. He is a micro-manager. There will be no Brezhnev-style Afghanistan disasters in Syria – or so the Russians pray – no slovenly retreats across the Amu Darya by political generals, no Kremlin lethargy. Russian officers speak good Arabic (and quite good English) – products of the Moscow School of Foreign Languages – and, like the Syrian army, their officers go to the front lines.
That’s why Asapov was killed. Putin decided to pursue his Chechen and Russian jihadi enemies all the way to Syria – and kill them all. He saved his ally, Bashar al-Assad. But at the very same time – give or take a warning or two and one downed Russian jet courtesy of a later-to-repent Erdogan – he remained a trusted friend of Israel, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and so on.
Refusing to join his insane counterpart in Washington in a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shias, Putin deploys the one phrase which unites every dictator, prime minister, mafiosi autocrat, king, president, mass-murdering tyrant, public relations hack or fawning editor: the “war on terror”. I reckon Putin and Trump use this circumlocution about the same number of times. It’s a cracker for the masses, and it doesn’t matter if it’s uttered by a cynic in the Kremlin or a guy in the White House who is completely bananas. But Putin, of course, is a man for all seasons.
He accepts the praise of Bashar al-Assad for “saving” Syria. He calls Israel’s racist defence minister Avigdor Lieberman “brilliant”. Indeed, one Russian translation of a Kremlin meeting quoted Putin as claiming that Lieberman – a former nightclub bouncer from the ex-Soviet Union – was “a great Russian”. Netanyahu is always welcome at the Kremlin, even when he’s bombing the Iranians in Syria. Sultan Erdogan of Turkey, whose air force shot down one of Putin’s jets, scurried to befriend Putin when the Russians ordered their holidaymakers to dry up Turkey’s seaside tourist industry. When Putin travelled to Erdogan’s golden palace in Istanbul, he stationed a helicopter-carrier bang in the very centre of the Bosphorous, right opposite the Topkapi.
Egypt’s Sisi takes Putin to the opera in Cairo. In the Kremlin, Putin welcomes King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He welcomes the Qataris. He pays court to Iran’s Rouhani. He listens – glowering, to be sure – as the Supreme Leader Khamenei explains the evils of American interference in the Middle East (this only two years ago).
Mercifully, the Iranian did not mention the Russian invasion of northern Iran in the Second World War, nor its setting up of Soviets in Azerbaijan and Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan when the war was over. No more than Sisi recalled how Sadat threw the Russians out of Egypt in 1972. No more than Putin would have mentioned to Assad how the younger Lion of Damascus flirted with the West and attended the Bastille Day parade with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 – Trump was equally hooked by this military flummery last year – and declined to respond publicly to Russian requests in 2000 about Chechen rebels who had fled Russia.
But after the Libyan debacle, Putin was going to take no nonsense when his western partners tried to unseat Assad. There would be no more humiliating Russian retreats from the Mediterranean.
When the Russians later wanted to talk to the American-trained anti-Islamist Libyan military seigneur de guerre Khalifa Haftar, they simply airfreighted him onto a Russian carrier off shore. When the Americans complained that Russian airstrikes in Syria were only hitting the CIA’s favourite (and fairly mythical) “Free Syrian Army” rebels, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov grimly replied that “if it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist… it’s a terrorist.”
Putin sheds as few tears over the Russian mercenaries who die in Syria fighting the Kurds as he did over the Kurds who died defending Afrin from the Turkish army and its Isis cohorts. That deal seems to have been simple. The Turks could have Afrin province – for the time being – if they let the Syrians and Russians clear the Islamists out of Idlib province in the future (note: watch out for this war).
And a bigger compromise seems to have been achieved with the Israelis. They could hit the Iranians if they wished, but no war on Syria, no Israeli (or American) no-fly zones, and – above all – no war with Iran. The Iranians don’t want a war with Israel (neither side would win, as Netanyahu knows), and in Tehran, Putin is the voice of common sense. Once it was the State Department which called for “restraint on all sides” – usually when the Israelis were invading or bombing Lebanon or Gaza – but now it’s the Kremlin which calls for “restraint” between Israel and Iran.
So to what degree has Putin’s shrewd, hard, sardonic character brought all this about – and how much did Trump’s instability and unpredictability hand Russia its political triumph in the Middle East? It’s tempting to say a bit of both. But I suspect that an Obama might have provided a regional equilibrium which Putin has now claimed for himself. When Moscow is now the interlocuteur valable in the Middle East, it’s difficult to take the gift of equilibrium politics away from Putin. Europe’s case is hopeless.
Europe cannot engage with a Kremlin that still occupies part of Ukraine and annexes the Crimea. It showers sanctions upon Russia. But it grovels like the Americans to an Israel which occupies the West Bank and annexes Jerusalem and Golan; and the very word “sanctions” – or disinvestment – cannot be mentioned in Europe without accusations of anti-Semitism.
Israel can fire off its missiles into Syria after claiming that Iranian missiles had fallen on Golan – actually Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan, although that got a little lost in the telling – but Putin is not going to order an end to Golan attacks. There is a strong suspicion that it was the Syrian army which fired those missiles at the Israelis – in retaliation for the constant Israeli bombing of Syrian forces (never Isis forces, of course) over the last three years. Thus the Israelis, fearful of a reopening of the “South Lebanese Front” in a future war with Hezbollah, have unthinkingly opened a “Golan Front” – along a border which has been largely silent for 45 years. It’s the kind of equation Putin can savour. Be sure, he’ll be there to intervene if anyone needs him.
And he’s insisting that it’s the Syrians who move onto the Golan plateau on their own. No Iranians. No Hezbollah. The Syrians can’t object if they’re back on their border with occupied Golan. And the Israelis can’t object if Russia keeps the Iranians and the Hezbollah out. “Deconfliction”, the Russians like to call this. Everyone backs off. No war on Golan. That’s the hope.
As for what the “experts” like to call geopolitics, Putin immediately understood the need to uphold the Iranian nuclear accord when Trump tore it up. At one stroke, he became a closer ally of Iran, he could sympathise with Europe and he was able to present himself as steadfast in a treaty he signed with China. But he is entering a potential market war with the US – a dollar war – alongside a Europe whose governments may be prepared to stand up to Washington (some of them, at least), but whose big businessmen are already showing their usual cowardice in the face of American profit and loss.
There is something scornful about all this. Putin is not going to worry about Russian mercenary deaths in Syria; their activities are intended to test American military willpower in Syria. Nor does America weep for its Kurdish mercenaries, or protect them in Afrin.
Putin is not going to scream about human rights abuses in Gaza – the shooting down of unarmed demonstrators or the Israeli destruction of clinics or hospitals – when his own jets have been destroying clinics and hospitals in Syria. He sticks to the “war on terror” – and being an ally of all. The children may rattle their toys, but the tsar has the keys to the nursery. The crackpot in the White House neither knows nor cares nor, one suspects, understands. He long ago opened the door for Putin – and Putin walked straight through it.
US, Britain and France inflicted worst destruction 'in decades' killing civilians in ISIS-held city of Raqqa, report says
'More artillary shells were launched into Raqqa than anywhere but the end of the Vietnam War,' says Amnesty International
Air and artillery strikes by the US and its allies inflicted devastating loss of life on civilians in the Isis-held city of Raqqa, according to an Amnesty International report. It contradicts claims by the US, along with Britain and France, that they precisely targeted Isis fighters and positions during the four month siege that destroyed large swathes of the city.
“On the ground in Raqqa we witnessed a level of destruction comparable to anything we have seen in decades of covering the impact of wars,” says Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty. She says that the coalition’s claim that it had conducted a precision bombing campaign that caused few civilian casualties does not stand up to scrutiny. She quotes a senior US military officer as saying that “more artillery shells were launched into Raqqa than anywhere since the end of the Vietnam war”.
The air and artillery strikes by the US and its allies killed many civilians – the number is unknown because so many bodies are buried under the ruins – during the four-month-long siege, beginning on 6 June and ending on 17 October last year according to the report. Citing the testimony of survivors, it contradicts assertions by the US-led coalition that it took care to avoid targeting buildings where civilians might be present. Witnesses say that again and again their houses were destroyed although there were no Isis fighters in them or nearby.
“Those who stayed died and those who tried to run away died. We couldn’t afford to pay the smugglers: we were trapped,” says Munira Hashish. Her family lost 18 members, of whom nine were killed in a coalition airstrike, seven as they tried to escape down a road mined by Isis, and two were hit by a mortar round, probably fired by an Syrian Democratic Forces unit. She says that she and her children only escaped “by walking over the blood of those who were blown up as they tried to flee ahead of us”.
Many families were hit more than once by airstrikes and artillery as they fled from place to place in Raqqa, vainly trying to avoid being close to the front lines but these were often changing. The Badran family lost 39 members, mostly women and children, as well as 10 neighbours, killed in four different coalition airstrikes. “We thought the forces who came to evict Daesh (Isis) would know their business and would target Daesh and the leave the civilians alone,” said Rasha Badran, one of the survivors. “We were naive.”
Many cities have been destroyed in the wars in Iraq and Syria since 2011, but the destruction is worse in Raqqa than anywhere else. Streets are simply lane-ways cut through heaps of rubble and broken masonry. The few people on the streets are dazed and broken, and this has not changed much in the months since the city was captured from Isis by local ground forces backed up by the devastating firepower of the US-led coalition.
The claim by the coalition that its airstrikes and artillery fire were precisely targeted against Isis fighters and their positions is shown up as a myth as soon as one drives into the city. I visited it earlier in the year and have never seen such destruction. There are districts of Mosul, Damascus and Aleppo that are as bad, but here the whole city has gone.
I went to look at the al-Naeem Roundabout where the spikes on top of metal railings are bent outwards because Isis used them to display the severed heads of people whom it deemed to be its opponents. On every side, as far as the eye can see, there are ruined buildings, some reduced to a mound of rubble while others have been turned into concrete skeletons that look as if they might collapse at any moment.
Given the level of violence in Iraq and Syria, it is difficult to prove that one place is worse than another, but this has now been established with a wealth of evidence in this Amnesty report entitled War of Annihilation: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria.
The report, based on 112 interviews and visits to 42 strike locations, was sharply criticised by a coalition spokesman even before it was published. US Army Colonel Sean Ryan was quoted by news agencies as inviting Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, to “personally witness the rigorous efforts and intelligence gathering the coalition uses before any strike to effectively destroy IS while minimising harm to civilian populations”. Although the report cites the detailed evidence of many surviving witnesses whose family members were killed in airstrikes, Col Ryan says that allegations of indiscriminate and disproportionate bombardment were “more or less hypothetical”.
The reality in Raqqa, despite claims of the precise accuracy of modern weapons and great concern for civilian life, is that the ruins look exactly like pictures of the aftermath of the carpet bombing of cities like Hamburg and Dresden in the Second World War.
US forces fired 100 per cent of the artillery rounds used against Raqqa and over 90 per cent of the airstrikes, but British and French aircraft were also involved. The Ministry of Defence says the UK carried out 275 airstrikes and killed no civilians at all. Despite pledges that civilian loss of life would be thoroughly investigated, Amnesty says there is no sign of this happening.
A consequence of the assertion by the coalition that they seldom harmed civilians, there has been little humanitarian support for people returning to Raqqa. Aid agencies say that one problem is finding a safe place where there no unexploded munitions or mines where they can distribute provisions. The report says that many residents ask: “Why those, who spent so much on a costly military campaign which destroyed the city, are not providing the relief so desperately needed.”
An MoD spokesman said: “Keeping Britain safe from the threat of terrorism is the objective of this campaign and throughout we have been open and transparent, detailing each of our nearly 1,700 strikes, facilitating operational briefings and confirming when a civilian casualty had taken place.
“We do everything we can to minimise the risk to civilian life through our rigorous targeting processes and the professionalism of the RAF crews but, given the ruthless and inhuman behaviour of Daesh, and the congested, complex urban environment in which we operate, we must accept that the risk of inadvertent civilian casualties is ever present.”