Despite the Democratic filibuster in the US Senate of the Republican resolution of disapproval in relation to the Iran deal, difficult questions loom over Tehran’s nexus with Damascus and the appalling state of affairs in Syria. Large swathes of Syrian territory – historically allocated to France through the arbitrary Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916, dismembering the Ottoman Empire, between Britain and France – have been lost to the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS/ISIL). After four years of carnage, war and the displacement of millions, Syria’s borders have been completely redrawn with the result that the government retains control of a mere 30-40 percent of the country’s original de jure territory. Constantly changing battle lines and tactics make it impossible to predict what the future holds. This round up looks at future trends and directions in Syria’s brutal war and the gamut of issues shrouding peacemaking in that country.
The media reports that in 2015 the Royal Air Force carried out more than 100 drone strikes against ISIS/ISIL jihadis – with 29 strikes in August, the surge continued in the first week of September and 14 strikes were conducted. This is so irrespective of the fact that in August 2013 David Cameron’s government lost its bid to join US-led strikes in military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the motion in support of military intervention was defeated in Parliament by 285-272 votes. The fact that British citizens are being killed in drone strikes under an official “kill list” is all the more alarming for human rights lobbyists in the UK (where, of course, there is no death penalty). Unsurprisingly, Mohammed Emwazi – the balaclava clad knife wielding ISIS executioner initially known only as “Jihadi John” – is said to be number one on the list. Emwazi, a Kuwait born Iraqi with British nationality, has repeatedly taunted David Cameron and Barack Obama in videos showing beheadings of Americans, British and Japanese citizens. (Victims dressed in bright coloured jumpsuits chillingly mirror Guantanamo detainees, the scene and style of execution symbolic of “getting even” with the West and its war on terror.) Number 10 states that acted in self-defence within the meaning of Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations when it targeted and killed British jihadis Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin on 21 August 2015 in Raqqa, Syria.
The drone was operated from Lincolshire. Reyaad Khan reportedly said that “Allah will give you 700 times more” if you sacrifice yourself and it is said that along with Junaid Hussain, another jihadi killed in a US air strike three days later, he had been plotting attacks against the VJ Day ceremony overseen by the Queen and an Armed Forces Day event in the memory of murdered British soldier fusilier Lee Rigby (who was hacked and knifed to death by radical Islamists in Woolwich, London in May 2013).
David Cameron explained that the strike on Reyaad Khan was the first time British forces directed an attack against a British citizen while not at war. Junaid Hussain, who reportedly joined ISIS in 2013 with his convert wife Sally Jones is understood to have been spearheading the jihadis’ cyber caliphate. Apparently, the deceased computer hacker from Birmingham had briefly taken control of a Pentagon Twitter account this January and was jailed in 2012 for six months for hacking into Tony Blair’s electronic diary. It has been reported that British security agencies find that ISIS is attempting to hack into information held by ranking ministers such as the Home Secretary (i.e. the interior minister). Notably, ISIS has also been putting up very sinister “prisoners for sale” announcements and ransom payments have been sought in relation to a Norwegian and a Chinese captive. “Limited-time offers”, with an Iraqi phone number, for the sale of Ole Johan Grimsgaard (from Oslo) and Fan Jinghui (from Beijing) – both dressed in yellow jumpsuits – have appears in the 11th Edition of the Dabiq online English publication. Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg said that Grimsgaard was abducted in January shortly after arriving in Syria and the kidnappers have made substantial demands for ransom. “Our goal is to bring our citizen home. But let me be clear: this is a very challenging case,” she said.
But to rely on the UN Charter, the use of force must be covered under the legal test in the Caroline Case whereby the threat posed must be instant and overwhelming, i.e. leaving no choice of means and no moment of deliberation. Former British attorney general Dominic Grieve QC argues that a perfectly sound legal basis for taking action exists whereas Philip Sands QC, an acclaimed academic and lawyer, has warned that by following the path of the Americans the UK has taken a “new step”. Foreign secretary Philip Hammond has said that apart from being covered under Article 51, the drone strikes are at one with the greater objective of keeping Iraq secure from ISIS. The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions expressed “great concern” over the British drone attacks. Professor Christof Heyns said that it is not illegal to use drones against legitimate targets under the laws of war but he nevertheless remained highly critical of “targeted killing based on a very open-ended justification.”
Indeed, the British drone attacks have already been challenged by Rights Watch (UK) because of the maintenance of an American-style kill list. However, defence secretary Michael Fallon was clear that he “wouldn’t hesitate to take similar action again” in relation to “other terrorists involved in other plots.” Fallon authorised the strike on the advice (unpublished to the public) of the attorney general, Jeremy Wright QC. Complaining about insufficient information available to the public as regards drone killings, the director of Rights Watch (UK) Yasmine Ahmed explained that knowing about the legality of attacks is a key concern for everyone – she said:
These strikes set a very dangerous precedent for UK government activity.
Yet Ken Macdonald QC, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, was of the view that the drone killings were legal and justified. Equally, Dominic Grieve QC did not think that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin’s British citizenship mattered if the action was taken in self-defence under Article 51. On the other hand, reacting to the Raqqa attacks, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn said a few days ago:
I have questioned the legal basis for the use of drones. Urgent consideration now needs to be given to the appropriate process by which attacks such as this one are sanctioned, on what basis and on what basis of law.
Micheal Fallon emphasised that Corbyn’s victory has transformed the Labour Party into “a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s security.” Fallon added, “this is a very serious moment for our country.”
Some years ago, in September 2011, the US killed the first American citizen in a drone strike in Yemen, namely al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Anwar al-Awlaki. Notably, like its British allies, the Obama administration also faces legal action for maintaining a kill list. According to the Bureau of Investigative journalism, in comparison to the Bush administration’s 50 strikes, the Obama White House has conducted more than 500 drone strikes: the majority of these were in Pakistan but with the Pakistan army now conducting its own drone strikes with its indigenous Burraq vehicle (which reportedly killed three high profile terrorists last week) , the number of American strikes in Pakistan have receded and 15 have been conducted in 2015. The Bureau of Investigative journalism explains that at least 10 Britons have been killed by drones in the war on terror. But the British Ministry of Defence has not confirmed or denied its role in Pakistani drone attacks because doing so might undermine “international relations”: it has refused to provide details in response to a Freedom of Information request by the legal charity Reprieve that would confirm whether British military personnel are active with American teams conducting drone strikes in Pakistani airspace. Anxieties are therefore mounting over the degree of Britain’s culpability and participation in CIA drone attacks on Pakistan’s territory and the Guardian explains that:
UK military personnel are suspected of having participated in the CIA’s controversial drone war in Pakistan, which has resulted in thousands of fatalities.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that there have been 421 drone strikes in Pakistan and a minimum of 2,400 people, including more than 400 civilians, have lost their lives in drone strikes in Pakistani airspace. It is said that 370 of these “signature strikes”, based on patterns of behaviour rather than actually identified targets, have occurred under the Obama administration.
David Cameron has vowed to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran, at all costs. But Syria has rejected the British proposal for Assad to lead a transitional government and it counterclaims that it is irrational to demand that the head of the only country fighting ISIS should step down. The Russians are calling on world powers to arm the Syrian regime. In Moscow, at a news conference Sergei Lavrov renewed commitments to arm Damascus. As he said:
You cannot defeat Islamic State with airstrikes only … It’s necessary to cooperate with ground troops and the Syrian army is the most efficient and powerful ground force to fight the Islamic State. I can only say once again that our servicemen and military experts are there to service Russian military hardware, to assist the Syrian army in using this hardware. And we will continue to supply it to the Syrian government in order to ensure its proper combat readiness in its fight against terrorism.
Russian military forces are arriving in Syria in what Moscow describes as its bid to spearhead the charge against ISIS. According to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Moscow is eager to avoid any unintended incidents but American officials are uncertain whether the move is aimed at reinforcing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, to set up an enclave for him or to set out a course to bring the existing shambolic state of affairs into order. It is possible that by leading in the war against ISIS, the Kremlin is keen to vindicate itself for its murky involvement in Ukraine which has resulted in universal condemnation by the international community.
Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon has independently verified that some Russian forces have arrived in Syria. According to him, these are significant developments and Russian military intelligence units are preparing for the arrival of warplanes and combat helicopters. John Kerry has reportedly twice raised concerns with Sergei Lavrov over the renewed Russian presence and even though the State Department is anxious that international attempts at bringing peace to Syria may be put in jeopardy, Moscow is adamant that its involvement in the crisis may well be the cure required to end Syria’s longstanding civil war. For the Russians, it is not about who holds power in Damascus but “who can fight the most dangerous threat, the threat of terror.” The Russians are involved in a base in Latakia and five of their naval ships armed with guided missiles are conducting military exercises in Syrian territorial waters. Russia has had the Tartus naval base since 1970 and Russian contract soldiers have reportedly been spotted in the city.
Despite expressly acknowledging that the war has redrawn Syria’s borders, Moscow considers itself as preserving Syria’s territorial integrity. Its presence, it its argued, is a boon for Syria’s neighbours who face a threat from the expansion of ISIS. Surely no one wants Bashar al-Assad leave behind yet another vacuum of power for radical Islamists to fill in western Syria as they have done in Iraq and other parts of Syria. Or so goes the Kremlin’s argument, which is no doubt designed to salvage Syria’s shifting borders. A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman confirmed that “military specialists are in Syria to help them master the weapons being supplied” and she explained that Moscow “has never made a secret of its military-technical cooperation with Syria. Conversely, NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg said that he is “concerned about the reports of increased Russian military presence in Syria” and he thinks that it “will not contribute to solving the conflict.” But irrespective of this the future trend of the Russians confronting ISIS is probably a welcome development given that the US and its allies are not really all that bothered by their expansion.
British prime minister David Cameron is adamant that “hard military force” is needed against ISIS and he believes that Bashar al-Assad can remain in power for a transitional period of six months until an end to the conflict is in sight. “Assad has to go, ISIL/ISIS has to go. Some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy but will on occasion require hard military force,” he said. The proposed six month sunset clause on the present Syrian regime is meant to be a carrot to lure its Russian and Iranian masters into line with the position espoused by western governments that Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of a successful solution. David Cameron is eager to avoid another defeat in the Commons over taking future military action in Syria. However, it has been reported that – in order to demonstrate their opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s unprecedented election as Labour leader – at least 30 Labour MPs could end up backing David Cameron’s renewed bid for air strikes over Syria.
Future and existing trends in Syria’s war have today been reported by the unsurpassable Ian Black according to whom a sense of hedonism exists in Damascus. Black says that everyone is expecting an escalation in the conflict and he informs us that it is normal for Damascenes to sip coffee on the roof while mortars simultaneously come crashing down and power cuts affect the Syrian capital. “That’s normal life in Damascus,” explains Black, a veteran journalist of the Middle East. Reporting on the close knit nature of the conflict, where ISIS strongholds and government dominated areas coexist, Black concludes that:
A mood of fatalism and fear prevails in Damascus, where residents admit their hearts have grown hardened to violence. But defiant partying is one way some forget daily reality.
According to Black, morale in the Syrian army is very high and a young soldier who divides his time fighting for Damascus and driving a taxi made this remark about the so-called Free Syrian Army: “They are just terrorists … Syria will defeat them because we are strong.”
On 14 September, American officials said that Russia had sent a dozen of its most modern T90 tanks, 200 marines and other military hardware to reinforce an airbase near the Assad regime’s coastal stronghold of Latakia. However, President Putin has reportedly said in summit in Tajikistan:
We are supporting the government of Syria in the fight against a terrorist aggression, and are offering and will continue to offer it necessary military-technical assistance … without Russia’s support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would have been even bigger.