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Deir al-Zour is the end of the road in Syria for both, US and Russia, will they collide or reverse course?

Deir al-Zour is the end of the road in Syria for both, US and Russia, will they collide or reverse course?

By Abdel Bari Atwan
US-backed SDF (yellow) are now face to face with Russia-backed SAA (red)
For the first time since the Syrian crisis began some seven years ago, there is a growing prospect of a military collision taking place between Russia and the United States over the oil and gas fields in and around Deir az-Zour. The US wants these wells to fall into the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) so they can be used to sustain a future Kurdish enclave or state in northern Syria. Russia wants them to revert to the sovereignty of the Syrian state so their revenues can help fund the country’s reconstruction.


On Sunday, the Russian defence ministry held the US responsible for the deaths of senior military advisor Lt.-Gen. Valery Asopov and two colonels who were accompanying him who were killed when their position was shelled by Islamic State (IS) forces in the village of Marat east of the Euphrates River. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov described the deaths as ‘the bloody price for two-faced American policy in Syria,’ adding that ‘the American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of IS … but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington.’ The accusation was unprecedented, and led to a sharp rise in tension between the two sides.

The village was the first site to be recaptured by Syrian government forces east of the Euphrates, and was being used as a base from which to control Deir az-Zour and retake the oil and gas fields to its east.
The more damning accusation, in the view of many observers, is Russia’s claim to  have evidence supported by photographs of collusion between US forces backing the SDF and IS east of the Euphrates. It also accuses the Americans of being behind the major assault launched last week by Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) from Idlib governorate, which they control, against government positions in Hama, aimed at slowing the eastward advance of Syrian and Russian forces towards Deir az-Zour and the oilfields.
On Tuesday, Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Moscow was still awaiting replies from Washington to questions about ‘whom US Special Forces in Syria are fighting with and against’. He referred to images of former IS positions that had been taken by American Special Forces that showed no sign of fighting or aerial bombardment having taken place, and which lacked the protective defences that would normally be expected, implying collusion between the two sides.
The US has had nothing to say about these charges, or about allegations by Iranian commanders that the US held back from fighting IS in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
One of the triggers of the Syrian crisis was that the government in Damascus turned down proposals to build a pipeline through Syria to carry Qatari gas to Europe. It did so partly at the request of Russia, which feared that the project was aimed at  under-cutting its own gas exports to Europe. Now another ‘oil war’ seems to be looming in the east of the country.
This poses a serious question: Is the ‘war on terror’ declared by the US a mere façade, or are Russia’s accusations of US collusion with IS and al-Qaeda off the mark? And when did this alleged collusion begin, at the outset of the crisis or just in the past year? We cannot offer answers at present. The American side has not presented evidence to disprove the Russian claims. But no evidence is needed of the US’s strong backing for the Kurdish SDF as it fights to secure control of al-Raqqa and the Deir az-Zour oilfields, and takes steps toward establishing a Kurdish state in northern Syria by holding municipal elections to be followed by parliamentary polls.
Russia can be expected to exact revenge for the killing of its commander and two colonels, as it did by launching airstrikes targeting Nusra Front commanders in Idlib in retaliation for an earlier attack on its troops. This could result in US forces on Syrian soil coming under Russian attack, potentially sparking the fuse of a confrontation.
The next big crisis brewing in the region may not stem from this week’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, but from growing tensions between the US and Russia – though Washington’s ambiguous attitude to that referendum, and to Syrian Kurdish separatist plans, is inextricably related to that tension.
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* SAA = Syrian Arab Army

Government of at least one of Gulf Cooperation Council nations continues to supply Nusra with weapons

Government of at least one of Gulf Cooperation Council nations continues to supply Nusra with weapons

Recent investigative reporting has revealed that weapons continue to reach al-Qaeda affiliate groups in Syria. Weapons shipments reached the group formerly known as al-Nusra as recent as April 6, 2017. The report did not name the government that is paying for these weapons. However, the government of…

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Is Qatar training Egyptian fighters in Idlib, Syria?

Is Qatar training Egyptian fighters in Idlib, Syria?

Qatar’s global media outlet, Aljazeera, reported that 200 Egyptian military officers and experts are now in Syria. The report, is based on a Lebanese source, came days after the Egyptian president, Abdulfattah al-Sisi, in an interview to Portuguese media, said that he supported the Syrian national army in its war on terrorists. This seemingly new position has angered the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who back the Syrian opposition fighters and have been pushing for the removal of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Some sources, however, have also revealed that Qatar is training Egyptian Islamists in Idlib, Syria. This revelation could explain the increased collaboration between the Syrian and Egyptian governments. Egypt, like Syria, has been battling Salafi and other Islamist militants. If these elements are being trained in Syria and supported by Qatar, Egypt will be forced to collaborate with the Syrian and Libyan governments who are facing the same threats. 
Fath al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra front, which is backed by Qatar, controls Idlib, and has released multiple videos showing individuals engaged in war games, with indication that some of these fighters are not training for the war in Syria, which could support the assertion that Idlib is turning into training grounds for fighters from other countries, including Egypt, China, Tunisia, France, and Algeria.
It should be noted also that when al-Julani, the leader of al-Nusra, announced the name change of his group’s name into Jabhat Fath al-Sham, sitting next to him was a known Egyptian Salafist, another reason for Egypt to be concerned about the role of Qatar in supporting groups that might pose a security threat to Egypt.
 al-Julani, announcing the name change of al-Nusra Front
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Syria’s protest movement that gave birth to a World War

Syria’s protest movement that gave birth to a World War


The peaceful protest movement that started in Syria in 2011 was transformed by foreign governments’ involvement into a civil war fueled by sectarian and ethnic dreams. Now, we can see that Syria is no longer ground for a civil or proxy war, it is scene of a world war. There are two sides in this conflict. Although each side prefers to frame its identify in appealing descriptors like Friends Of Syria, Anti-Terror Coalition, Preservers Of Legitimacy, and Pro-International Law and Order Nations, the two sides are fixated on one man: Bashar al-Assad. From the moment some Syrians began protesting, the US-Saudi coalition jumped on the opportunity and planned to oust Assad no matter the cost. The Russian-Iranian coalition did not want that to happen no matter the cost. Every other claim about Assad’s regime abuse of human rights, forcing a wave of refugees, denying his people democracy, committing war crimes, being authoritarian, and  lacking legitimacy are nice sounding slogans needed to disguise the real agenda. After all, any one of these nations that is directly involved in this crisis is guilty of the same offenses: they all have a record of human rights abuses, ill treatment of refugees, subversion of democracy, war crimes, and authoritarian behavior. Some of these governments never held even sham elections to test their actual legitimacy. Now, each side is undertaking military action to support its side achieve the one goal: remove/strengthen Bashar al-Assad. 

Russia’s direct military involvement should not surprise anyone: Russia’s leaders have been preparing for it for years. Now, parties of this international conflict are well known. On one side, we have the so-called Friends-Of-Syria or Anti-ISIL nations that supported, trained, and equipped the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which metamorphosed after 2012 into ISIL, al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Jaysh al-Fath, thuwar Suria, and other smaller armed groups. On the other side, we have nations that declared their support for nations’ sovereignty, Preservers-Of-Legitimacy (POL), as they want to be called. 

Over time, the coalition of FOS shrunk from nearly 100 nations in 2011, to merely seven nations today: UK, US, France, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. On Friday Oct. 2, these countries released a joint statement, saying that Russian strikes would “only fuel more extremism.”  But they did not explain why Russian strikes would fuel extremism but strikes carried out by FOS would not. 

In my estimation, Russia’s direct military involvement only escalated the proxy war into an open world war, which has emerged when the FOS began their strikes without UNSC authorization. Russia is now activating its own coalition, POL, which consists of Russia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. This coalition of nations that are willing to take military action in Syria and Iraq are politically backed by BRICS nations, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. While only three out of the seven FOS coalition are actually dropping bombs in Syria, four out of the eight POL nations are indeed in the battle fields. The BRICKS nations provide the political cover for POL’s military intervention in Syria (and soon Iraq).

Who will have the upper hand in Syria? The coalition with more reliable military presence on the ground is likely to achieve more of its goals. Given the difficulties faced by FOS in identifying appropriate “moderate” rebel groups who would fight both the Syrian government’s forces and ISIL, POL appears to have an advantage since the Syrian government and its allies actually have a formidable presence on the ground that can clear and hold territory.

The idea that there is a strong “moderate” FSA group that can defeat ISIL and/or the government forces is not supported by facts. Training and equipping rebel groups, whose loyalty cannot be ascertained will only prologue the war. The only paths we can see for FOS to match POL’s potential for success are: (1) send their own ground troops into Syria or (2) re-brand some terror groups, like al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam as moderate rebels, and use them on the ground. These two options, however, have significant security and political costs for FOS. Can FOS nations continue to ask Russia to restrict its strikes to ISIL without legitimizing other groups that are just as genocidal in their ideology and practices as ISIL? Are the leaders of FOS nations prepared to say that al-Nusra, the actual affiliate of al-Qaeda, is a good terror group while ISIL, which had created al-Nusra in the first place, is a bad terror group?

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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

An education in occupation

An education in occupation

Cost of War comments: 
Iraq has a history rich in contributions to various academic fields, and its universities were the envy of the Middle East thirty years ago. In the early years of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the education system in Iraq was well resourced, globally connected, secular and open to women.  University education was free and literacy levels rose from 52 percent in 1977 to 80 percent in 1987.  The near collapse of Iraq’s education system was the culmination of a process of decline that gathered pace with the international sanctions regime of the 1990s, culminating in the war of 2003 and its aftermath.  Iraqi universities were stripped clean not only of cultural artifacts like books but also of the basic infrastructural items that enabled them to function at all. Due to international sanctions following the 1991 Gulf War, foreign bureaucrats blocked requests for education materials and resources. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, museums and university libraries were looted and many of their cultural artifacts and documents destroyed, despite earlier pleas from the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to protect cultural heritage sites in Iraq. Jerry Bremer’s DeBaathification process, initiated in 2003, led to the removal of half the intellectual leadership in academia regardless of whether or not they truly believed in the Baath party.

Many professors were kidnapped and assassinated during the violence that followed the US invasion.   While the exact number of academics killed is difficult to determine, estimates by journalists range between 160 and 380 by 2006.  Female students have meanwhile become targets of threats and intimidation by fundamentalist militia groups. In just three decades, Iraq’s universities, reputedly the best in the Islamic world, were effectively destroyed. 

In 2004, John Agresto, the US Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education, assessed the rebuilding needs of devastated Iraqi universities.  He requested from Congress $1.2 billion even though the UN and World Bank had estimated it would take almost $2 billion to “ensure minimal quality standards of teaching and learning.” Nonetheless, Agresto received  $8 million, less than 1 percent of what he had asked for.

Far from the battlefield, American universities have paid a less visible price during the post-9/11 wars. The university system places greater emphasis on military research than it did prior to 9/11 and, as a result, diverts students from careers and researchers from other pressing projects they might pursue. Instead of tackling considerable public health problems such as diabetes and heart disease that kill large numbers of Americans, resources have been skewed towards a preoccupation with bioterrorism (which has killed five Americans since 9/11).

The war in Iraq harmed the Iraqi and American systems in different ways, resulting in the complete degradation of the Iraqi education system and a reallocation of research labor away from important health and other social problems in the United States.

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As the last American soldiers left Iraq in December, so, too, did many of the journalists who had covered the war, leaving little in the way of media coverage of post-war Iraq. While there were some notable exceptions — including two fine articles by MIT’s John Tirman that asked how many Iraqis had been killed as a result of the US invasion — overall the American press published few articles on the effects of the occupation, especially the consequences for Iraqis.

An Academic’s work provides some insight into the state of Iraqi universities. 

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist, is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. His expertise is in nuclear culture, international security, and the anthropology of science. He has conducted considerable fieldwork in the United States and Russia, where he studied the culture of nuclear weapon scientists and antinuclear activists. Two of his books encapsulate this work–Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War (University of California Press, 1996) and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). He also coedited Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong (University of California Press, 2005) and the sequel, The Insecure American (University of California Press, 2009). Previously, he taught in MIT’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society.

  
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