Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Syria and Iraq: A Comprehensive Review, and a look towards the future

For the last five (going on six) years, Syria has been in the news, as forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad fight to keep control of their country from various other entities in a grueling Civil War. 

This war, unlike the conflict in Iraq, has grown into a complex multi-front proxy war. In Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces hold the line on their considerably expanded border as the Iraqi Security Forces, along with Shia militias financed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, fight to evict the Islamic State terrorists from their country. 

In Iraq, the conflict is relatively straightforward. 

The Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF, are the main defense force for Iraq. They are represented by the areas in maroon. Once ridiculed for their fleeing considerably smaller Islamic State battalions, the ISF has found its footing and turned the tide decisively. 

Fighting with them are the Kurdish Peshmerga (in dark gold), a regional defense force which is tasked with the defense of Iraqi Kurdistan’s three provinces. Peshmerga ("Those who confront Death" in Kurdish) forces along with some minor allies such as Yazidi militias in the far northwest of the country, have not only held the line and kept Islamic State from taking their lands, but advanced and taken more villages in northern Iraq, including the city of Kirkuk. 

Also featured are the aforementioned Shia militias that are funded mainly by Iran. These groups are known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU. While effective in central Iraq, the PMU has been notably asked to refrain from reinforcing the siege of Mosul so as to avoid sectarian tensions in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim city. 

The main ongoing battle today is for the Iraqi city of Mosul. Mosul is one of the largest cities in Iraq; only Baghdad and Basra are larger. Once the Islamic State’s main stronghold in Iraq, Mosul is currently under siege by ISF forces from the east. 

Apologies for the map not being in English, this is the best one I could find (and I can't read Arabic either). Green areas have been captured by Iraqi forces, red areas are where there is fighting, and white represents areas where ISIS controls

The military campaign started late last year. Despite some early hiccups in execution, Iraqi troops looks to be progressing steadily. Islamic State forces have lost nearly a third of the city to the ISF, particularly the Golden Division, a special forces unit trained by the United States in previous years. 

A victory in Mosul is not guaranteed for Iraqi forces, but momentum is on their side. It is possible the entire eastern section of the city (Mosul is split into eastern and western sections by the Tigris River) could be liberated by the ISF by the middle of February,. Assuming the momentum holds, the smaller western section could be liberated sometime in April or May. 

Victory in Mosul would represent an enormously decisive turn of the tide for Iraqi forces. Islamic State militants once advanced as far as the outskirts of Iraq’s sprawling capital of Baghdad. If they lose Mosul, their control of the country will be reduced to a few considerably smaller cities near Mosul, the sprawling but sparsely populated Nineveh plains, a shrinking portion of predominantly rural Anbar province, and the area around the city of Hawija, which was surrounded by both the ISF and Kurdish forces months ago. 

There is a distinct possibility the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria could become merely the Islamic State of Syria by the summer of 2017. 

In Syria, things remain complicated. 

The above map of Syria shows the current state of affairs in the Civil War. 

Red represents the Syrian Arab Army, forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad. The Syrian Arab Army, or SAA, has been through nearly six years of siege from other entities, but they still manage to hold control of the vast majority of Syria’s urban west. While they and their allies in the Kremlin suffered an embarrassing defeat when ISIS militants stormed and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra, it is extremely difficult to imagine the SAA surrendering control of the urban centres in Syria, especially Syria’s largest city and recently recaptured hub of Aleppo. 

Assad’s forces, however, are exhausted, and the chance of them ruling over the entirety of Syria’s borders again look uncertain. 

In the northwest, represented by green and white, the Free Syrian Army and its Islamist allies Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra (recently renamed “Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham” ) hunker down around the city of Idlib. This pocket of rebel Islamists seems to be the next priority of President Assad’s, but it will be a fierce, long and bloody fight to capture the area in its entirety, and the objective may not be done until late into 2017. 

Two other entities are vying for control and influence in the northwest. The green area between the two gold areas is another branch of the Free Syrian Army, but it is heavily supervised by thousands of members of the Turkish Armed Forces. Turkey invaded Syria months ago to prevent the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from connecting into one continuous entity, and they seem to achieved that goal for now, but Operation Euphrates Shield, as it is called, has been mostly ineffective. Many of the Arab fighters in this area were poorly trained and lacked the motivation to fight that the SAA and SDF seem to possess in greater numbers. The Turkish Armed Forces, while well trained and well-equipped, have not made much movement towards the stated objective of the ISIS controlled city of Al-Bab, even being repelled a few times. A full assault on the city, moreover, could result in heavy casualties for the Turkish forces as well as the Arab forces they are allied with. Turkey has the strength to capture the city, but when that will happen is not certain, and even less certain is the stated objective of President Erdogan’s to then capture the city of Manbij, which is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

Now to the last major entity in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. They are represented by the color gold in the map, and they are advancing towards the city of Ar-Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in a multi-stage operation entitled Wrath of the Euphrates. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces are a multiethnic coalition of Kurds, Arabs, and other smaller groups such as Armenians and Syriac Christians. Once a mainly Kurdish entity called the People’s Protection Units (or by the Kurdish initials of YPG), military success along the border with Turkey encouraged the group to expand and welcome Arabs and other ethnic groups into its rank and file. While the YPG (and its all-female counterpart the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Units) remains a distinct entity, the group is now more well-known by its more inclusive name. 

The result has been effective. Once surrounded by ISIS in the ravaged city of Kobane, the SDF coalition has carved out control of most of Syria’s northern border, extending deep into the south of Hasakah province. It has evicted ISIS from much of Syria’s rural north and east, and it is still advancing. The group hopes to surround and eventually capture the city of Ar-Raqqa, and then advance further south to the besieged SAA town of Deir-Ez-Zor, where a small but tenacious group of Republican Guard soldiers (a special forces unit, one of Syria’s most effective) loyal to Assad have put up heroic resistance against onsalught upon onslaught from Islamic State. While the SDF and SAA have distinctly conflicting goals for the future of Syria, and though they have come to blows a couple times, ceasefires have been effective and the groups have been able to coexist for the time being. If the SDF manages to free Deir-Ez-Zor from its siege, it will gain a large amount of goodwill with the SAA and will also be within striking distance of the oil fields to the east, where much of ISIS’s money is made. A march to the Iraqi border, while foreboding, would be possible as well, and would give the SDF control over most of the Euphrates River. 

Unfortunately, while it is often doted upon in the western media because of its stated aims for a democratic, federal Syria, and its use of feminism as a cornerstone of the group’s ideology, the SDF is not without its faults. 

A member of the Kurdish YPJ (Women's Protection Units) embraces a woman after assisting in the liberation of Manbij in northwestern Syria. 
Photo credit to the BBC. 

The YPG, its founding entity, still holds ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a left-wing militant terrorist group which has been a nasty thorn in the side of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since the late 1970s. While the group is secular (and therefore does not inspire the same fear as a group like ISIS or Al-Qaeda) and not uniformly considered a terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK has employed ambushes on Turkish soldiers, suicide bombings, and feeds off public discontent and poverty much like Hamas does in Palestine. A strong SDF is cause for worry in Ankara, and not without good reason. 

Islamic State will be defeated, one way or another. But what happens next is also cause for fear. 

It’s been said many times before, but you can’t kill an ideology. Islamic State will die, but Islamism and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism will not die with it. Whether Syria can keep a lid on this poisonous ideology even after triumphing over ISIS is in serious doubt. The country has been through hell and will take generations to rebuild. Assad is still a bloodthirsty dictator who committed grave sins against his own people. 

While actual fisticuffs between the SAA and SDF have been thankfully rare so far, tensions between them very well could come to the forefront once ISIS is defeated. The SDF’s inclusion of Arabs into its ranks cuts into Assad’s influence, and the more land they capture from ISIS, the less the SAA will control at the end of the war. Whether war will break out between the two groups is uncertain, and there is an argument to be made that the SAA may not wish to fight a group which has included Arabs and helped defeated a common enemy (or may simply just be exhausted), the cruelty of the Assad government is not a fairy tale. 

What happens to Assad is even less certain. He likely will not be put in front of the International Criminal Court despite his transgressions because of support from Russia and Iran (and possibly even the United States, depending on President Trump) but he may be ordered to step aside after a few years and the country has stabilized. He may have no choice but to give the SDF-controlled areas some degree of autonomy as they continue to advance into more areas of Syria. 

And in Iraq, trouble may continue. Sectarian division may bubble up again after the war is won, and the Kurdish regions are still itching for independence. 

The road ahead is difficult and foggy for Syria and for Iraq. But with a lot of luck and shrewd negotiation, it may end up more peaceful and democratic than before. 

Many thanks to Wikipedia and Nineveh Media Centre for the maps, and to Reddit.com/r/SyrianCivilWar for their tireless work in documenting this conflict in painstaking detail. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Al-Bab: A Snapshot of the Complex Syrian Civil War

Five years after Syrians started to rise up against the brutal dictatorship of President Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian Civil War rages on across this land of ancient history from Palmyra to Aleppo to Damascus. 

Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson raised many eyebrows when he was caught completely off guard when asked about the siege of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, seemingly unaware of Aleppo’s importance and perhaps even existence. 

Aleppo, however, is not just Syria’s largest city. It is a province in northwest Syria, home to many cities. To the northeast lies a smaller city by the name of Al-Bab.  

Al-Bab is not a particularly large city. Its population in 2004 was estimated around 63,000, and it is likely less than that today as it is currently under the occupation of Islamic State. 
What makes Al-Bab significant, though, is its enormous strategic importance to multiple different factions in the Syrian Civil War. 

As mentioned before, Al-Bab is under the control of the Islamic State. To the immediate north, Free Syrian Army forces backed by the Republic of Turkey sit only a few kilometers away, waiting to advance on the city as a main objective of the “Euphrates Shield” operation. While Ankara has carved out a sizable chunk of land in Syria for their forces, their forces have been very inconsistent in their abilities and have few friends in the region. 

To the south lies the Syrian Arab Army, the forces to which President Al-Assad is Commander-in-Chief.  

The Syrian Arab Army is arguably one of the stronger players in this war, but five years of combat across Syria against various different adversaries has left the fighting force exhausted and even with Russian assistance, the SAA is still bogged down in their siege of Aleppo and has made little advances otherwise. To the far east, the besieged city of Deir-Ez-Zor lies surrounded by Islamic State and in real danger of being sieged and taken over. 

To both the east and west lies another player still, the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF, as they are often abbreviated to, is a broad coalition of Kurds, Arabs, some Turkmens, Christians, and Armenians which have rallied in the country’s north. The SDF proclaimed a large victory in the nearby city of Manbij a few months ago, but has been limited and careful in their recent campaigns with the Turkish-allied FSA’s marching towards the same objective. If the Syrian Democratic Forces manage to siege and capture the city of Al-Bab, they will have stuck a hell of a monkey wrench into Turkish ambitions in the region and put their biggest objective-carving out a united region of Syria for the Kurdish minority not under Assad’s control. While Kurdish units in the SDF (known as the People’s Protection Units and by the Kurdish initials YPG) have withdrawn from the region on orders from Turkey and the United States, they remain a factor in the Syrian Democratic Forces approaching from the west and may be able to connect their regions into one entity, possibly setting the stage for a federal region similar to that in northern Iraq. 
Yellow: SDF. 
Red: SAA. 
Green: FSA. 
Gray: IS. 

The various groups in this civil war are, unsurprisingly, generally unfriendly towards each other. 

The Turkish-backed FSA forces are hostile to the SDF and Assad’s SAA, and vice versa. 

The SDF, while not outright hostile to the SAA, has a relationship of tense neutrality with Assad’s forces and even if limited cooperation takes place between the two parties as has happened in the past, that does not mean they will continue to cooperate. Some have speculated that the SAA and SDF may end up fighting against each other if Islamic State and the FSA are defeated as Assad has repeatedly refused to entertain plans for a new federal Syria similar to the Iraqi setup after 2003. 

While the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces fly the same green, white, and black flag of the FSA in other areas, they are largely Islamist and answer to Turkish forces rather than towards a broader desire to liberate Syria from Assad’s grip. These forces have not come in contact with Assad’s forces and will likely avoid doing so as direct conflict would drag Turkey farther into the conflict than it wants to be. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also seems more interested in preventing the Kurds and their allies from establishing a united entity in Syria as such an entity would likely allow the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK to operate and undermine Turkey. 

The Kurdish forces in Syria are often doted on by Western media because they are secular, somewhat democratic and have feminist leanings as women frequently fight alongside men in combat. However, the YPG, as they are known, is closely related to the PKK in Turkey and despite the fact that the PKK does not instill the same fear as Islamic fundamentalist terrorists seem to, it is still called a terrorist group for a reason and Ankara is understandably worried about this. 

Islamic State is retreating on all its different fronts and probably will not retain control of Al-Bab  once they are engaged in the city limits. Who takes it from them is still unclear, but the strong adversarial relationships between the various different groups surrounding the city is definite cause for worry. 

Iraq, meanwhile, has managed to start its advance into Mosul, Islamic State’s last and by far the largest stronghold in the city. If Mosul is retaken by the Iraqi Security Forces, the Islamic State will be severely weakened and the country may evict the terrorists from their borders by the Spring of 2017. Syria, unfortunately, looks like it will endure war for considerably longer unless some sort of comprehensive peace deal can be worked out, but that seems quite unlikely. 

Trudeau, Trump, and Fashionable Authoritarianism in the Free World

Fidel Castro, infamous revolutionary and symbol of Cuban Communism, died at the age of 90 just two days ago. 

In Miami, Cuban-Americans poured into the streets of Little Havana in celebration. The five blue and white stripes of the Cuban flag fluttered everywhere next to the 13 red and white American ones as people hugged, cheered, and banged pots and pans together in a joyous cacophony. 

Ninety miles south in the other Havana, Cubans wept and expressed sorrow for their fallen comrade. Nine days of mourning were declared by the Cuban government. Although an aging Fidel had conceded power to his (only slightly) younger brother Raul in 2006, he remained a powerful symbol of the Cuban Revolution against the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and even as he neared his last day, continued to be a vocal spokesman for the communist cause. 

Fulgencio Batista

Communist Cuba is, in some ways, ahead of its counterparts around Latin America. The Cuban people are well-educated and generally live long, healthy lives due to the system in place. Cuban doctors are world-renowned for their administration of healthcare. 

However, these advances that occurred under communism came at serious prices. Cubans living on the island have extremely limited access to information. Freedom of speech and of the press is non-existent. For fifty-plus years, Cubans have been trying to move to other countries, particularly the United States. Miami is jokingly nicknamed “North Havana” because of the huge and vibrant Cuban community there. While Cubans don’t starve in the streets of Havana, most are forced to live spartan lifestyles, making tiny wages that if not for the communist system, would plunge them into squalor and poverty. Opportunities for advancement on the island are sparse. Repression has remained brutal and unforgiving. 

World leaders reacted from all sides of the spectrum. U.S. President Barack Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump both expressed a hope for Cuba to move forward, and Trump was blunt (though not wrong) in describing Castro as a bloodthirsty leader. 

A confusing reaction, however, came from north of the United States. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, according to public broadcaster CBC, expressed “deep sorrow” upon hearing about Castro’s death and called Castro a “legendary revolutionary and orator”who his father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “was very proud to call a friend”. 

Trudeau’s comments came as a shock and a sharp contrast to other Canadian politicians.  They were quickly criticized by opposition Members of Parliament in Canada’s Conservative Party, and Tom Mulcair, the head of the New Democratic Party, had a much more subdued reaction to the news. 

Ironically, Mulcair’s NDP is typically farther to the left on economic issues than Trudeau’s Liberals, which only made Trudeau’s remarks more confusing. 

Canada, like the United States, has long been an example of democratic success, and for Canada’s head of government to praise the exact opposite of that tradition is unnerving. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has yet to comment on the mounting criticism of his remarks, and it isn’t really known whether this was a poorly thought out remark or an honest opinion. If he does truly hold serious admiration for Fidel Castro, however, he is continuing a worrying trend evident on both the left and the right in the free world, the admiration of strongman, authoritarian leaders and their legacies. It especially comes across as ironic considering Trudeau’s very outspoken support of social justice movements such as feminism and public appearances at LGBT Pride events in Canada as LGBT individuals in Cuba were brutally persecuted by the Communists. 

President-Elect Donald Trump drew sharp and deserved criticism for similar remarks. He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, the late Saddam Hussein, and the late Muammar Gaddafi. According to Trump, Putin’s leadership dwarfs Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein was good at stamping out Islamic fundamentalism, and Muammar Gaddafi should not have been deposed by the NATO coalition that aided Libyan rebels in the Libyan revolution of 2011. 

Now, President-elect Trump is not completely off base in his remarks on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi if they are taken by themselves. After Gaddafi’s death, Libya has been stuck in a brutal and confusing civil war between Islamists, various factions of transitional leaders, desert tribes, and lingering loyalists. However, in the grander scheme of things, there are serious problems with his views on these heads of state. While it’s true that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism rarely manifested themselves in Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq, different and equally grave sins were committed. Iraq’s Kurdish minority, who make up nearly a third of the country and most of the northern provinces, were butchered and gassed in the Al-Anfal Genocide and the Halabja chemical disaster. Hussein also started a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980 which accomplished nothing and killed hundreds of thousands, a war where the United States assisted Iraq. Hussein also oppressed the Shi’a Muslim community in Iraq. 

And for all Putin’s “strong leadership”, the Russian economy has slumped into a serious recession due to sanctions, low oil prices, and military adventures engineered by the Kremlin in Ukraine and Syria. The Donbas remains a not-quite-frozen stalemate where Ukrainians and Russians, brother Slavs, die nearly every day. Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army is exhausted even with Russian support. Much of this “strong leadership” comes from a token opposition in the Duma made up of grey-haired Communists, absurd ultranationalists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the democratic opposition’s utter failure to resonate with the Russian people at large. 

It’s true that comparing Putin to Fidel and Raul Castro is probably unwise. Putin does not employ even close to the same levels of censorship and repression that the Castros do, but it remains that both Prime Minister Trudeau’s lionization of Castro and Trump’s praise of Putin and others is deserving of heavy criticism. 

Various Latin American left-wing organizations are also speaking wistfully about Fidel. There’s a little more concrete reason for this considering the United States’ hypocritical and undemocratic actions in Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and so forth. At the same time, there’s a startling blind eye turned towards the basket case socialist Venezuela has become. Venezuela’s Chavistas were vocal allies of the Castros in Cuba, and when oil was selling for over US$100 per barrel, their policies looked sound if not entirely democratic. As soon as oil became cheap, however, the Venezuelan economy tanked and the country descended into near-anarchy, a phenomenon many Latin American leftists have remained silent on. 

For our own sakes, the countries of the Americas must look towards their inspirational figures with a more honest and objective eye. It is possible to criticize American foreign policy in Latin America and also be aware of the repression that continues in Cuba, and it is possible to criticize things such as the EU’s handling of the Refugee Crisis without defecting to the Kremlin as a role model.