Thursday 28 Oct 2021 | 08:42 | SYDNEY
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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: Not there yet

Last Thursday in Astana the latest agreement that attempts to establish some limited cessation of hostilities in Syria was signed. The signatories (and hence guarantors) were Turkey, Iran and Russia. Given this is the fourth attempt at a cessation of hostilities, prospects for its success appear slim. The opposition groups represented staged a walkout over a number of issues, not the least of which was the acknowledged role for Iran.

The plan allows for the creation of four zones, within which offensive military operations will cease (except against Islamic State or al-Qaeda-linked groups), as will Syrian aircraft missions above these areas (although Russian aircraft will continue to fly in a defensive role). Essential services would resume, and humanitarian aid delivery would be unobstructed. Outside of these areas, the conflict would continue.

Washington has been cautious about the proposal. It sent an observer to the Astana talks for the first time, but it also quickly rejected an idea espoused by a Russian envoy that the flight restrictions outlined in the agreement would also apply to US aircraft. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was circumspect, saying the US was examing the plan but had many questions still to be answered.

There are plenty of difficulties with the proposal including: the delay in defining the exact limits of the zones and who and how each would be protected; the absence of a conflict-resolution mechanism; and the definition of al-Qaeda-aligned groups who could continue to be engaged within the zones. The Syrian government, for example, has previously defined all armed opposition elements as terrorists, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said that non-AQ groups must not only disengage from any affiliation with AQ-aligned groups but actively work to expel them from the zones. He has also dismissed any role for UN monitors, although the proposal will itself likely go to the UN for ratification.

So another attempt at trying to impose a limited cessation of hostilities is attempted, as the UN Geneva-based political process continues. Turkey and Russia have reported ongoing violations of the ceasefire, but also an increase in the number of armed groups joining the agreement and of inhabited areas joining in the reconciliation process. Neither claim has been independently verified, of course.

On the one hand any agreement that brings relief to civilians, even if temporarily, needs to be supported. But the lack of trust between sides has not disappeared. Cynics might say that such ceasefires simply allow the Syrian government to redeploy assets to other areas, reduce operational tempo, and plan and re-equip for future operations while trying to negotiate localised outcomes in populated areas. When looking at Syria, it's hard not to be cynical.

Finding the right balance: Terrorism financing offences, charitable donations and aid

As the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq worsens, Australians are likely to donate to charities operating in the region. Some of those who give - and some of those they give to - may run the risk of inadvertently breaching laws that have made 'reckless' and indirect funding of terrorism a criminal offence.

Since 9/11, Australia’s counter-terrorism efforts have included wide ranging legislative amendments to the Commonwealth’s Criminal Code. In an attempt to combat threats in an era of heightened terrorism, there have been eight tranches of legislation covering offences that range from travelling to a conflict zone to providing support to a terrorist organisation. In 2002, as a response to the UN Security Council’s binding resolution, Australia criminalised direct funding of terrorism. In 2005, the Code was further amended to prohibit indirect and reckless financing of terrorism.

The 2005 amendments sought to ‘enhance the clarity’ of terrorism financing by criminalising the supply of funds ‘through an intermediary’. They make it a criminal offence to indirectly provide or collect funds for, or on behalf of, another person where the first person is reckless as to whether the other will use it to engage in terrorism. 

This criminal offence was created predominantly in response to recommendations made by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that was established in 1989 by 35 countries to combat money laundering that could be used to support terrorism. One FATF recommendation strongly encouraged states to criminalise the collection or provision of funds by any means, whether those funds are directly or indirectly used by a terrorist organisation. Although the recommended level of intent was knowledge that funds will be used to engage in terrorist activity, intention can also be inferred from objective factual circumstances. Australian legislators argue the Australian law complies with the FATF recommendation.

The Australian Commonwealth Criminal Code defines recklessness as taking a ‘substantial risk’. In this case, the risk would be that funds given or received will be used for a terrorist act. A conviction may be secured if it is regarded as ‘unjustifiable’ in the circumstances to have taken such a risk. The maximum penalty for the offence is life imprisonment. However, as this law remains largely untested, it is unclear what would qualify as a ‘substantial risk’ and satisfy the requirement of recklessness.

What about donations?

It's worth considering how this law could be applied to charitable giving.  Last year Australians discovered that two charities had raised over $1 million each for a terrorist organisation. However, while AUSTRAC, Australia’s financial intelligence agency has acknowledged these incidents, the details of the charities involved are not publicly available, meaning individuals could potentially donate to the charities involved – thereby possibly contravening the law – without knowing of their links to terrorism. While one assumes the charities involved have been deregistered, this would not prevent the charity from collecting donations. The ambiguity evident here could potentially render the offences non-compliant with international law.

The Security Council’s Resolution 1373 and the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing Terrorism urged states to criminalise the wilful provision or collection of funds with the intent or knowledge that they will be used to carry out terrorist acts. The Australian offence goes beyond this in imposing a standard lower than actual knowledge. Known as 'gold-plating', this is permitted under international law as long as the laws comply with the requisite international obligations.

As the global response to terrorism financing is relatively recent, international approaches vary. The UK’s Terrorism Act requires a level of criminal intent akin to Australia. It prohibits receiving or providing funds if there is reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used for the purpose of terrorism. The US takes an intermediate approach, requiring knowledge and intent to provide support or resources that will be used in preparation for or carrying out a terrorist act. However, this same standard does not apply to giving material support, for which there is no need to prove an intent that support provided would be used to carry out an attack. Conversely, the French Penal Code and the Canadian Criminal Code, both of which have the lowest maximum penalty of the countries surveyed, stipulate the requirement of knowledge or intent that funds collected or received will be used for the commission of an act of terrorism.

Possible impact on humanitarian work

There are pertinent questions around how the 2005 law on terrorism financing affects those pursuing humanitarian goals in combat zones.

Unlike the offences of associating with a terrorist and entering a declared area (Mosul and Al-Raqqa), there is no permissible humanitarian exception to the offence of terrorism financing leaving civilians, doctors and aid workers potentially exposed.

A 2010 case in the United States, Holder v Humanitarian Law Project, is pertinent here. In its ruling, the US Supreme Court declared that training the PKK to peacefully resolve disputes, as well as in ways to comply with international humanitarian law, violated the US criminal law. The court reasoned that such support can 'free up resources that can be put to violent ends', as there was a lack of evidence that terrorist organisations 'meaningfully segregate support of legitimate activities' from terrorism. This is the US law but its reach and influence can be seen in the Australian and UK legal systems where it is viewed as an example of a state fulfilling its international obligations by exercising due diligence in preventing terrorism. Such measures, however, have to be balanced with the need for humanitarian organisations to operate in terrorist-controlled areas to aid civilians.

In 2013, a report identified the use of proscribed terrorist group Al-Shabaab by prominent international charities as a gateway to secure humanitarian access to Somali communities. More than 80 aid workers were interviewed and the majority said there was a greater chance of gaining and maintaining access if staff formed links with Al-Shabaab. This included the payment of ‘registration fees’ and ‘taxes’. The consequences that these relationships have for individual donors is yet to be explored, however Australian law does not rule out such liability. This reflects the lack of specificity in the offence that leads to legal uncertainty.

The Australian Law Council suggests that this is not the only danger in these laws, arguing they could 'serve as a hook for the exercise of a wide range of law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers'. The case of Muhammad Haneef highlighted the broad and undefined parameter of these laws, although the case was ultimately unsuccessful. Haneef was charged with intentionally providing support to an organisation and being reckless as to whether it was a terrorist organisation after providing a SIM card to a second cousin who was suspected of involvement in the 2007 Glasgow Airport bombings. After being detained for 12 days without charge, evidence showed the SIM card was not in fact used and Haneef was acquitted. It could be argued the initial charge demonstrates a dilution of what defines criminal intent.

Australian charities focused on international development sent $1.7 billion overseas in 2015. Community support accounted for 61% of this total. Community support for NGOs that provide humanitarian aid has increased by an average of 5.6% since 2010, suggesting Australians have a high level of confidence in the charity sector.

In 2015, nearly 7000 Australian charities had beneficiaries located overseas while 57 disclosed operations in Iraq and Syria. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission regulates the national charities’ register, and in 2017 alone 590 charities had their status revoked for failing to adequately account for funds collected. Although this may appear reassuring, charities that have been deregistered by the ACNC – or never registered - can still accept donations from the public, leaving open the possibility that individuals may donate funds that end up in the hands of a proscribed organisation. It is unclear whether donating to one of these charities could be construed as reckless.

Australia’s legal framework must define our approach to the fight against terrorism. However, it is equally vital that humanitarian assistance is able to reach civilians in need, no matter their location, and that those willing to give to support such assistance should not run the risk of inadvertently breaking the law. In the years ahead, the balance Australia strikes between these goals will need to be constantly re-weighed.

*Charlotte Warden is an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia program. She has a Juris Doctor from the University of Sydney and has a research interest in human rights law, development and the law on the use of force.

Anzac Day: Remembering the soldiers on unexpected battlefields

My experience of Anzac Day probably mirrors that of a lot of Australians: some initial connection with returned diggers, then a role in their commemoration. As a very young tacker I would occasionally be taken into the city to see an uncle (a World War II veteran) march. The crowds were, to a little boy at least, very large. At school cadets, there was a remembrance service around the cenotaph at Chatswood that was equally well-attended (although largely by parents).

When I joined the army and went to the Royal Military College Duntroon in the early 1980s, I was struck by how low-key Anzac Day was. Dawn service around Bridges' Grave (the first commandant, killed at Gallipoli) and a very short parade where the names of the fallen graduates were read out, then knock-off for the day. First-year cadets (referred to as fourth class) were bussed to the War Memorial prior to dawn, where we were designated as the press-ganged, semi-official but entirely untrained 'choir' and stood along the Roll of Honour above the Pool of Reflection. The gathered crowd all fitted easily around the pool area. Those who have attended dawn service at the War Memorial recently will understand what a production it has now become.

Nowadays my connection with Anzac Day is somewhat less removed. Even though all but a handful of my classmates have left the service, we have in the last few years developed a habit of Sydney-based (and visiting) former classmates gathering on Anzac Day for a few beers. We are, I suppose, a representative sample of the diversity of the last quarter-century of Australian military operations. Some among us have served operationally in combat, peace enforcement, peacekeeping, training and advisory, and evacuation roles in many countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Solomon Islands, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Somalia and elsewhere. However, such is the disaggregated nature of modern operations, with task-organised groupings or individualised rotations, that few of us actually served together on any of these operations – we all have individual rather than shared memories of these deployments. 

It is difficult to associate our group with those that my uncle used to gather with, many of whom had fought together in a conventional war for years. But warfare and military operations are rarely fixed, even if the principles underpinning them often are. What my generation's experience of military operations lacks in intensity and duration, compared to that of my uncle or the Vietnam veterans who were still around to instruct me during my years at Duntroon, it probably makes up for in diversity and complexity. And the more complex the nature of conflict, the less likely it is to be accurately foretold, which was certainly the case in my experience.

The best advice about the future conduct of military operations came in the first few weeks of my military service. The Commandant, a student of military history, told the assembled fourth class with great confidence that we should all expect to see operational service during our careers and it behoved us to master the profession of arms in order to meet whatever that conflict would be, as we would be unlikely to foretell what that service would entail. Much went in one ear and out the other in those days, when sleep was in short supply but getting yelled at wasn't. But those words stayed with me because they seemed so at odds with the strategic stability of that Cold War time.

The years passed, I graduated and I had cause to remember those words as a junior officer when I was on yet another exercise – this time trudging through the bush in Cape York as commander of an 'enemy' platoon attempting to breach the defences of the army reserve brigade defending the bauxite mining and export facilities at Weipa. That's what strategic guidance said was the most likely threat faced by Australia, and the role of the Army should therefore be vital-asset protection as the Navy and Air Force fought the good fight well offshore. I tried to master my profession as the Commandant had urged, but I was pretty sure that the operational service I would be called upon to undertake (if indeed I was to undertake any) would not be in Far North Queensland protecting mines and export facilities, regardless of what the 'strategists' posited as credible scenarios.

Events have proven both how facile the late 1980s strategic guidance was, and how prescient the Commandant's words were. My operational service took me to places I couldn't have pointed to on a map during my early years in the army, doing things strategists couldn't have foretold. And that is likely to hold true for future generations of service members, whose equipment purchases, organisational structures and basing locations will be driven by defence white papers that largely fail to predict the future. It will be left to those same service members to play the hand that events deal them, because in the end the words of advice that the Commandant gave to RMC Fourth Class in 1983 will likely hold more weight than the strategic guidance contained in all the white papers ever issued.

As well as remembering the horrors of and sacrifices involved in past wars, on Anzac Day it is worth spending just a little time thinking about the tasks we may call on our present and future service members to perform. In the next quarter-century the groups that gather to recall their own operational service will, like my own cohort, undoubtedly talk of places and tasks that either didn't feature in the current strategic guidance, or only as a least likely scenario. Lest we forget.

The popes and the Islamists

As we approach Easter, it's worth looking at how institutional Christianity and radical Islamism interact in the contemporary world. The bomb attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt highlight the occasional focus by Islamist groups on Christian targets in the Middle East.

Just as outsiders struggle with the complexities of Islam's various sects, the same conundrums often face Christians in the Middle East. Here, Orthodox sects vie with Latinate and Eastern-rite Catholic sects for space in the religious milieu. There has been little acknowledgement that religious obligation is acting as a minor motivator for Russian actions in the region. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed in 1774, gave Russia a historical basis for its claim to act as protector of the region's Orthodox Christians.

But while Orthodox Christianity has great strength in the Middle East, it is really Catholicism that has global reach, and a bureaucracy to give substance to ideological orientations. Most importantly, as an institution nearly two millenia old, the Catholic Church is unconcerned with electoral cycles and has a keen sense of time. Thus, its response to radical Islamism is an interesting one.

The Catholic Church is undoubtedly a target for radical Islamists. The death of a French priest last year, killed by Islamic State militants while giving Mass in Normandy, grabbed headlines; there have been alleged plots against other Catholic churches in France. In August last year a suicide bomber unsuccessfully attacked a Catholic church in Indonesia, while an attack on the main Catholic cathedral in Jakarta on Christmas Eve in 2000 killed several people. In 2011 Boko Haram killed more than 30 people at a Christmas morning mass near Abuja, Nigeria's capital. Other attacks against Catholic churches occurred in 2012 and 2014. In Syria, Catholic Franciscan and Jesuit priests have been killed, while in Yemen an ISIS-affiliated group killed four nuns (along with twelve others) and kidnapped an Indian Catholic priest.

The Pope, as leader of a state and the Church, has had to tread a fine line in condemning attacks against the institution he leads without condemning Islam, in whose name the assailants conduct the attacks. It is a difficult path to navigate, particularly given the historical baggage the papacy carries with respect to Islam among Arabs, especially in the Levant. The 11th century French-born Pope Urban II's urging of Christians in Europe to travel to the Holy Land to 'retrieve' it from 'an utterly accursed race alienated from God' lead to centuries of cruelty and barbarity as the Crusades wrought untold harm on the Muslim world. Nearly a thousand years later, Pope Benedict XVI sparked protests across the Islamic world when he quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos's critique of Islam during an address at the University of Regensburg in 2006.

But there is another element to the sometimes confrontational relationship between the Church and Islam. The papacy has been actively involved in rolling back forces fighting under the banner of Islam. In 1571 Pope Pius V put together the Holy League that defeated the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, while in 1683 Pope Innocent XI convinced the Poles to come to the aid of the Austrians besieged by the Ottomans in Vienna, ultimately saving European Christendom from Muslim invaders.

These events would normally be of historical interest only, but Popes have had a way of combining ecumenism and differentiation when dealing with the question of Islam. The Polish Pope John Paul II was able to emphasise commonalities between the religions, but to also highlight the differences. He was also not afraid to use the papacy's martial past to send a message about the present. It was no coincidence that in 1983, Pope John Paul II attended the 300th anniversary of the defeat of the Ottoman forces (though his focus at that time was still on repression in Eastern Europe). The Vienna victory had been celebrated on 12 September as the Feast of the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but that fell out of the Catholic calendar in 1970. However, on 12 September 2002, nearly a year to the day after the 9/11 attacks, the feast day that celebrated the victory of Catholic Europe over the armies of Islam was reinstated in the liturgical calendar by John Paul II.

Pope Francis has inherited the church at a time when the question of radical Islam has presented perhaps the most significant global security challenge of his papacy. He has been quick to adopt an ecumenical approach to Islam, and to downplay the religious aspect of radical Islamist terrorism in favour of emphasising its societal drivers. But he has also faced criticism for this approach from conservative wings of the church, including from the somewhat provocatively-named Lepanto Institute.

Missile strikes do not signal US shift on Syria

In a complex and confusing civil war in which decisions can result in unforeseen consequences, the Trump Administration was presented with a relatively straightforward choice and with a perfect target. Syrian military aircraft, launched from Shayrat airbase in Homs, carried out an attack that included the use of chemical weapons. That same airbase was subsequently targeted by scores of cruise missiles fired from US naval vessels in the Mediterranean.

The use of missiles avoided the need for aircraft to enter Syrian airspace and the consequent need to suppress enemy air defences in advance. An airbase is a large, flat area where assets are widely dispersed – infrastructure and aircraft can be selectively targeted and assets that need to be avoided (such as Iranian and Russian troops and advisers) can be avoided. 

This US response has been swift, targeted and, perhaps most importantly, proportionate. One of the constraints in undertaking military action against the Syrian government has been the need to do so without tipping the military balance in favour of opposition forces, whose disunity and increasingly overt Islamist influence long ago wore out Washington's patience with many of them.

We should be careful not to conflate the missile attack with any dramatic shift in US policy on Syria. There is still no rapid political resolution to the situation and therefore the primary intermediate aim is to contain the impact of the civil war. The Assad regime has had scant regard for the need to minimise civilian casualties, while at the same time the opposition deploys in and among the civilian population and within protected sites, also in breach of international humanitarian law. Neither side is blameless. But the use of chemical weapons sits well outside what has become 'acceptable', so something had to be done. Obama elected not to retaliate when chemical weapons were first used in 2013. In exchange, he got from Assad the removal of all chemical weapons. But Syria didn't live up to its side of the agreement, so Trump had little choice but to act.

Trump has set the boundaries on chemical weapons use back to where they have traditionally been, and put Russia and Iran on notice that Washington's patience has run out. But it's not likely this action will presage any fundamental change in Syria policy. Secretary of State Tillerson included the departure of Assad as one of the Administration's aims, but only as the result of an international effort and as a third priority (after the defeat of ISIS). And while Washington is obviously certain as to the 'how' of the chemical weapons attack, the more interesting question is the 'who' and 'why'. Who ordered the attack and what were they trying to achieve? That's a question to which not only Washington, but Moscow and Tehran, will be interested to find an answer.

Assad set to outlast the many who wanted him out

The language emanating from the White House concerning the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared to change last week, revealing another layer in an increasingly realist foreign policy approach from Washington. President Trump had signalled during the presidential debates that his focus was less on removing Assad and more on removing Islamic State, a policy that Assad himself unsurprisingly (if cautiously) welcomed. Last week Washington’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (backed up by the White House) both indicated that the priority for the Administration was the defeat of Islamic State and that the future of Assad would be decided by the Syrian people (the same public position enunciated by Russia).

Assad has of course taken a strategic approach to his continued hold on power. His father was the great survivor of Arab politics and Bashar (buttressed by powerful allies in Russia and Iran, and able to portray the opposition as a motley collection of terrorists, Islamists and opportunists while presenting himself as the rational alternative) has sought to ‘wait out’ his opponents. In this regard at least he seems to have won out. There is much to be said about the change in tone and what it means for Washington’s Syria, but it is also worth pausing to consider how successful Assad’s ‘wait it out’ strategy has been by examining the fate of some of the world leaders who have called for his removal over the years:


Kevin Rudd: In 2011, as foreign minister in Julia Gillard's government, Rudd issued a media release stating: ‘We again call on Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately'. Rudd's second stint as Prime Minister came to end when his party lost the September 2013 election.

Julia Gillard: In 2014, after she had been ousted by Kevin Rudd eight months earlier, Gillard said: ‘We must remain open and vigilant to opportunities and strategies that will end the suffering, end the Assad regime'.


Stephen Harper: In June 2013 the then-Prime Minister said: ‘We want to see Assad depart power'. The Harper government was voted out in October 2015.


The then-President Muhammad Morsi said during an Arab League meeting in September 2012: ‘Now is the time for change ... (Assad) You will not stay (in power) for longer'. Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian military in July 2013.


Nicolas Sarkozy said in January 2012 that Assad ‘must leave power’. President Sarkozy himself left power when he lost to Francois Hollande in the May 2012. Hollande told the UN General Assembly in September 2015 that ‘Assad is the origin of this problem, and cannot be part of the solution'. Hollande will leave office in May this year at the latest, if a second round is required in the French presidential election.


Former Prime Minister John Key said of Assad: ‘This is a guy who has used chemical weapons against his own people, against everything else. He's got to go.’ Key stepped down as Prime Minister in December 2016.


Then-Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2012: 'It is time for him to go. It is time for transition in this regime.' Cameron resigned in July 2016 after the Brexit referendum.


Barack Obama in August 2011: ‘For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside'.

Obama left offce in January this year after serving two terms as president, the maximum allowed under the US constitution.

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.


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